The Houston Symphony continues its Bank of America POPS Season with a high energy throwback to some of the 20th Century’s best hits with Whole Lotta Shakin’: Swing to Rock, featuring multi-instrumental phenomenon Dave Bennett, who will play not one, not even two, but three different instruments during the performance! This celebration of all things Swing, Big Band, and Rockabilly actually has a pretty interesting history with the Houston Symphony. We sat down with Lesley Sabol, our Director of Popular Programming, to hear its story and a few exciting teasers about what to expect this October.
Houston Symphony: This concert was originally programmed for the Fall of 2017 but had to be canceled due to Hurricane Harvey. It was then rescheduled for March of 2020 and subsequently canceled again because of the pandemic. How does it feel to finally see it come to fruition? Has the set list changed much throughout the reschedules and if so, why?
Lesley Sabol: Relieved! It felt like this show was cursed for a while but we’re so happy to have Dave [Bennett] and his band back to Houston. We did some minor tweaks to the set list but the biggest change we made was to use the Big Band instrumentation instead of the full orchestra, so adding more trumpets, trombones, saxes, and a rhythm section.
HS: Can you give us a little background on your role? What’s your process (and goals) when programming a season?
LS: I’ve been the Director of Popular Programming for the Symphony for the past 10 years. I work very closely with Steven [Reineke] and guest conductors to create, produce, and manage all popular programming offerings we have. Over the past 10 years my goals haven’t changed. We want our patrons to trust that no matter what we put on stage, they can feel confident that they’re going to have a great time and, in some cases, find a new artist or genre that they love.
Fortunately, Popular Programming covers so many genres of music, and we try to program as many of those genres as we can each season so that we can showcase the versatility as well as virtuosity of our musicians. From Broadway to Jazz, Pops/Rock, and film scores, there’s bound to be something on the season that will appeal to everyone.
HS: This concert spotlights the popular Houston Symphony Big Band. What flavor do the additions of an expanded brass and rhythm section and added saxophone section bring that we don’t typically hear at most Symphony concerts?
LS: One silver lining that came from last season was when we presented Tony DeSare singing Sinatra with the Houston Symphony Big Band. Because we were limited with the amount of musicians we could have on stage, we decided to use the Big Band configuration. That concert was one of my favorites of last season. When you’re utilizing a smaller group of musicians, the rhythm is so much tighter. The colors with this instrumentation are bright and fun and the sound is full of energy. There are no wasted notes and absolutely everyone on stage plays a much more important role than in the full orchestra. There’s nowhere for them to hide as each part is virtuosic in some way. There are many opportunities for solos and I’m especially looking forward to hearing Dave’s band collaborate with our musicians.
HS: Can you speak to Big Band’s enduring legacy and influence on today’s symphonic Pops programs? What do you hope audiences glean from performances like this one?
LS: In almost every concert we do, you can hear the Big Band influence in at least one piece, if not the entire program. Whenever we do anything from the Old American Songbook, (music of Sinatra, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, etc), you hear the Big Band influence. I can look around in the audience during these moments and see people’s toes tapping and smiles creep on their faces. I don’t know if it’s the tempo, the energy, or the virtuosity that is moving them but I have taken notice.
First, I want them to get to know Dave and his band. Dave is self-taught and is tremendous on every instrument he plays and his band is just as phenomenal. Audiences should expect some top-notch collaborations and energetic solos. I am also very excited to hear how Jones Hall will sound with this ensemble since we did some renovations over the summer. I think it will sound fantastic and I can’t wait!
LS: It would be so fun if it did make a comeback! There’s a plethora of great music written for this size ensemble. I think the nostalgic factor in pop culture is currently enjoying its moments from the 1980s, which is so fun. The 1990s are starting to make a resurgence as well and since Big Bad Voodoo Daddy began in 1993, there’s a chance we could see new groups forming or major artists touring with a Big Band. I also enjoy what Post Modern Jukebox has accomplished in this space and would love to see other artists experiment in the same way.
We invite you to toe-tap right along with Dave Bennett and the Houston Symphony Big Band, October 8–10 for Whole Lotta Shakin’: Swing to Rock, led by Principal POPS Conductor Steven Reineke! Tickets for this can’t-miss nostalgic event start at just $29.
By Mark Bailes