The Stars and Stripes has unfurled from the ceiling of Symphony Hall, the players have changed out black jackets for white, and the Boston Pops spring season has officially begun. Time for colored lights, eating during the show, and guest stars whose names you might actually recognize if you’re not an avid classical music fan! And for opening night’s special guest, the Pops and conductor Keith Lockhart played it timeless with Bernadette Peters, the scene-stealer of stage and screen who’s appeared with the orchestra six times. (She’s counting.)
Peters’s nine-song set Wednesday night included no curveballs in the music or banter. Looking spectacular in a shimmery lilac gown with a high slit, she opened with a sassy “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” working the crowd through exaggerated pauses and swinging herself around the microphone stand. She stretched out atop a piano for a sultry “Fever,” altering the last line to include anyone in the crowd who doesn’t get fever from “chicks.” She treated the audience to two fierce numbers from “Hello, Dolly!,” in which she recently starred on Broadway, belting through “Before the Parade Passes By” and wiggling her hips around “So Long, Dearie.”
The lodestone of her set was Stephen Sondheim, whose songs tend to demand character over conventional beauty or lyricism, and she acted through each one — a disarming “In Buddy’s Eyes,” a perfect storm through “Being Alive,” and the beautiful slice of shiver-inducing musical-theater bliss that was her “Send in the Clowns.” Even when high notes sung in head voice frayed, or the solidity of a long note faltered, her hold on the audience never greatly diminished. Unsurprisingly, she was confident in front of the orchestra, negotiating timings with Lockhart with just a glance. She knows her strengths, and she knows how to work them.
In the past two spring Pops seasons, the orchestra has mined the deep, gem-filled catalogs of John Williams and Leonard Bernstein. This year’s theme, if there is one, celebrates 50 years since 1969 — the first moon landing, Woodstock, all those easily marketable nostalgia trips. A few rock songs from that year were duly played in largely bland orchestral arrangements; the suite from the Who’s “Tommy” worked better than the others. Grandiosity becomes it.
The moon landing was commemorated with a few apt classical pieces; the opening fanfare from Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and “Daybreak” from “Daphnis et Chloé,” with lunar footage. James Beckel’s new multimedia piece, “From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond,” included plenty of pretty passages and astronomical photographs, with enthusiastic narration from astronaut Sunita L. Williams, who grew up in Needham. With any luck, NASA will have made some more women’s space suits by the time any young Williams wannabes blast off.
At Symphony Hall, WednesdayZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.