What if they threw a Boston Pops concert without the Boston Pops? Wednesday night at Symphony Hall didn’t answer that question, precisely, but it did demonstrate what happens when the star attraction opts to stick to the background. With the exception of the opening piece — the fragmented overture to ragtime king Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha,” reminiscent of the melodrama of 1940s black-and-white film scores and Merry Melodies cartoons — the Pops spent the evening acting solely in a supporting capacity. Thankfully, that support made for sympathetic backing for a diverse cross-section of styles and modes. It turns out that the Pops doesn’t need the spotlight to shine.
Instead, the focus initially went to the teenage winners of the Fidelity Investments 2019 Young Artists Competition. Alessandra Mariano was fabulous on excerpts from Grieg’s lolling, gently playful “Piano Concerto in A minor,” with her piano creeping forward on cat feet and then pouncing. Mezzo-soprano Aingea Venuto’s “Shine” (from “The Spitfire Grill”) marked her as a next-generation Sutton Foster, emotive and dramatic and with a steely smile in her voice.
There was no easing into Saint-Saëns’s “Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor” for Haley Kwoun; a single strike from the orchestra and she was off, skittering across the fingerboard with a determined attack. And the audience buzzed and gasped when conductor Keith Lockhart announced that Amanda Mena would be singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” If the song doesn’t quite suit a 16-year-old, Mena (who will also perform with the Pops on the Fourth of July) nonetheless delivered it with a clear, studied confidence.
After those young artists showed their mastery of one thing, the second half of Wednesday’s concert was dedicated to a maturing artist showing her mastery of many. On the first night of her four-night “Redefining American Music” Pops residency, Rhiannon Giddens — whose 2017 MacArthur fellowship makes her, like the others, something of a contest winner as well — began with the Appalachian banjo picking and high folk keening of “Spanish Mary” while the Pops brought the storm in behind her. “The Black Swan” followed, a short bass ostinato against which the orchestra hung shivering notes in the air as Giddens’s rangy vocals were at turns declamatory and hesitant.
One extraordinary song followed another: the existentially defiant “At the Purchaser’s Option,” the festive, Irish-inflected social music of “Pretty Little Girl With the Blue Dress On,” the sensual spiritual “Waterboy,” the perfect symphonic-soul sadness of “She’s Got You” (where Giddens tinged her heartbreak with anger), and so on. The Pops was exemplary throughout, backing the singer in richly rendered, exciting ways . . . right up until the orchestra was kicked off stage (of its own accord), and Giddens and her own band closed out the night with the joyous electric gospel of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. By then, the Pops had done its job.
The Boston Pops
With Rhiannon Giddens
At Symphony Hall, Wednesday, continues through SaturdayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.