Sunday, June 11, 2017

Conductor Larry Blank Leads Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen: Delivers Great American Songbook Classics in Pasadena Symphony POPS Opener

Across America, where great symphony orchestras struggle to find and maintain adequate funding to support the sharing of classical music and music classics with the public, the stellar Pasadena Symphony Orchestra is a priority to the leadership of the City of Pasadena, California. Clearly, the PSO is now flourishing in both audience and patronage, thanks to a dedicated Board of Directors and staff executives, whose commitment of time and resources underscores its value.

Bringing vibrant entertainment and sharing important music from the Great American Songbook and favorite Broadway tunes is the overall emphasis of the general Pops programming. The City of Pasadena has enthusiastically committed time and resources for this annual free concert, their gift back to the community. Each year the attendance has grown even larger and represents highest and best use of public funding as evidenced by Saturday night’s crowd. Organizers were heard to call it a “new record-setting audience,” of at least 5,000 enthusiastic music lovers.

The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra -- Friday evening before the concert, a special opportunity to watch the dress rehearsal provided a unique perspective about the hearts and minds of the talented vocalists, above and beyond the music. They are each gracious and humble about their individual talents, and their ability to blend their magnificent voices on the duo and trio numbers was seamless. Conductor Larry Blank knows the Great American Songbook intimately, and chose perfect songs for each singer, individually and together.

Dress Rehearsal -- There's extensive planning that goes into operations (marketing and fund-raising) behind the scenes, the logistics of symphony operations and then the music programming is an entirely separate but massive operation. Most of us don't see any of that but we're all certainly happy to show up early, park our cars conveniently, and sling portable chair bags over our shoulders, knowing we’re going to have a great time and hear beautiful songs. It's easy to overlook the hours of preparation that go into making an unforgettable evening.

Suffice it to say that if this was the first time you heard each of these ladies in concert, you'd be hard-pressed to find three more affable singers whose personalities blended as beautifully as would their harmonies the following night. What a concert performance doesn’t reveal is the generosity and genuine spirit of harmony in the exchange of ideas in rehearsal, nor does it show the brilliance of the conductor in crafting the program set list and order. Rest assured all elements are there and the conductor is the air traffic controller to create the magic of Music Under the Stars.

Preshow, Saturday, June 3, 2017, at Pasadena City Hall (TCVMedia), Conductor Larry Blank (Photo: Larry Blank Music).

Pasadena Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Affiliations -- Approximately 26 members of The Pasasdena Symphony Orchestra not only played their instruments beautifully, they brought such a magnificent uplift to all the songs. Evening formal attire adorned them perfectly as they played million-dollar notes for the singers to sing. Although each musician was outstanding, principal percussionist Theresa Dimond was brilliant as was keyboardist Alan Steinberger, and the horn section was outstanding. The skilled PSO members who were gathered for this POPS concert were well rehearsed for their performance. The sound company stayed busy in their preparations for the big show to come.

Special kudos are due to the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) Chorus and the Donald Brinegar singers, who combined to provide the tremendous background voices on selected numbers that so greatly enhanced the performances. Mr. Brinegar directs both vocal groups and combined their ranks to create the perfect accompaniment to many key songs.

Before the Concert -- Late Saturday afternoon, the audience built exponentially as early concertgoers were treated to plenty of interesting activities. A musical petting zoo was available to inspire children to want to know more about classical music, and a series of food vendors satisfied the ever-growing crowd. It was about sunset when the program began promptly. As the orchestra warmed up, some young 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds were spotted up front (with their parents) dancing when they heard musical snippets. At some point, you never know where the next harpsichordist, the next pianist, percussionist or virtuoso string player will emerge from the inspiration they see in the “grown-ups” at work. More than one youngster has wanted to become a conductor, by watching the masters at work.

Welcome to Music Under the Stars --

To open the evening, Lora Unger, CEO of the Pasadena Symphony Association thanked primary supporter, Bank of America, and the Los Angeles Arts Commission, through the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, who provided funding for the evening’s free concert. In symphony circles, it’s well know that CEO Unger has skillfully steered the PSO through challenging financial times over the past decade. With the help of a truly engaged Board of Directors and a dynamic Gala coordinator, Rebecca Shukam, only great times ahead are due for the PSO. (Pictured: Lora Unger, CEO, Pasadena Symphony Orchestra and POPS)

Remarks from PSO Board Member Maryam Shah Hosseini, also of Bank of America, focused on the importance of supporting the arts and Bank of America’s history of commitment to this group.

In turn, Pasadena Vice-Mayor John J. Kennedy echoed the value of the PSO to the City of Pasadena and likened the direction of the city to a musical score as he brought greetings. He also announced funding from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, made possible through the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors. Together they made possible a free concert for thousands, so their support is especially appreciated by the audience who benefited. If you live in a culture-rich, arts-laden community, be grateful every single day. Pasadena residents are truly lucky.

As Concertmaster Aimee Kreston was introduced, Director of Choruses, Don Brinegar, opened the program with “The Star Spangled Banner,” which featured the combined JPL Chorus and Donald Brinegar singers, with the audience following enthusiastically. The American flag blew lightly against the gentle night breeze that was forming as the evening began its natural temperature descent. Seasoned concertgoers were prepared with blankets and wraps, and the newbies made mental notes for next year but the excitement and pace of the music kept everyone warm.

A few introductions for those who were hearing these talented musicians and singers for the first time. Orchestrator and arranger Larry Blank always delivers a beautiful program for his annual “Music Under the Stars” concert for which he serves as resident conductor among other concerts in the Pasadena Symphony and POPS series.

Talented and gracious, Blank has conducted opera stars, Broadway and television favorites, and rock stars, including Jon Bon Jovi, Robert Goulet, Johnny Mathis, Beyonce, Josh Groban, Harry Connick, Jr., Antonio Banderas, Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Marvin Hamlisch, Lucie Arnaz, and Kelsey Grammer. Equally well known in England, on stage Blank shares delightful vignettes and back stories on the songs he’s chosen. Especially relevant is the fact that so many of the arrangements he prefers are those written by his mentors and friends, which adds lovely dimension to the music.

The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra benefits from having two outstanding conductors, Michael Feinstein and Larry Blank. Mr. Feinstein has a passion for and commitment to preserving and expanding the reach of the Great American Songbook throughout every concert he designs, one that stems from his early career experience with Ira Gershin and his lifetime fascination with the songs of “the Greatest Generation” and the one that preceded it.

Mr. Blank is renowned for programming the perfectly paced evening to delight audiences, and of course for conducting the orchestra when Mr. Feinstein in singing. As orchestrator and conductor, Mr. Blank has worked with singers who are concurrently stars of screen and stage and is entirely unflappable as he immerses himself into the music, bringing out the very best in every singer who is backed by ‘his’ orchestra. It’s truly a match made in paradise.

(L to R: Larry Blank, Kiki Ebsen, Valerie Perri, and Christina Saffran, Photos courtesy of Pasadena Symphony Orchestra)

Larry Blank--One by one, Conductor Blank introduced his vocalists for the evening—Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen. Christina and Valerie are Pasadena POPS audience favorites in recent years and the 2017 concert marked Kiki’s debut with this symphony. The music, he said, “would focus primarily on George Gershwin,” with some Ella Fitzgerald classics and a few surprises to boot.

Kiki Ebsen--In her Music Under the Stars debut this evening, the stunning redhead, Kiki Ebsen, returned to her original roots of classical voice and vocal performance, from college days. The independent beauty won a national collegiate competition for original songwriting, so Kiki left opera waiting in the wings, choosing adventure as offstage keyboard player and MIDI tech for iconic band Chicago. The next 20 years, she spent internationally, on keyboards, backing and lead vocals, and songwriting. So, it’s possible you forgot that theater, jazz, the Great American Songbook, and symphonies are “home” for Kiki.

Valerie Perri--A dynamic, beautiful brunette with a smile to match the light in her eyes, Valerie Perri is equally at home on a Broadway stage or any other stage as Eva Peron in “Evita,” but she’s also been known to become Dolly Levi with panache. Equally at home on a TV soundstage, Valerie’s screen credits are impressive. Her indefatigable optimism is contagious, and she is equally introspective when focused on her music, allowing the conductor to guide the music effortlessly with her.

Christina Saffran--The lovely Christina Saffran with the long blonde tresses made her fourth “Music Under the Stars” concert appearance this evening. The Broadway star is a diverse talent who has performed in numerous national symphony orchestras as well as in her own show in Las Vegas. Plus, she’s a frequent vocal talent in Disney animation projects. Christina has a special countenance, onstage and off, which allows her to immerse herself fully in the music and bring audiences great joy as she sings delivers the music of the Great American Songbook.

The Music Begins "Fascinating Rhythm"––Valerie Perri

Opening the program was Valerie Perri, skillfully singing “Fascinating Rhythm,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Who doesn’t remember the amazing Fred and Adele Astaire in Broadway’s “Lady Be Good”? That song prepared the crowd beautifully for the evening ahead, which would be filled with great music, grand memories of the first time you’d heard the songs, and reflections on why Gershwin songs truly make up such an important part of the “Great American Songbook.”

"Where or When"––Kiki Ebsen

Rodgers and Hart (1937) created this song for the musical “Babes in Arms” and the first performance was noted as 1937 by Ray Heatherton & Mitzi Green. This song has endured for eight decades and takes on new life, with Kiki Ebsen's soulful delivery.

"Someone To Watch Over Me"––Christina Saffran

From the musical “Oh, Kay!” in 1926, with British star Gertrude Lawrence, this has been called “one of the great love songs in American musical theatre history.” Christina’s version was nothing short of magnificent, even in this abbreviated video snippet.

"A Tisket a Tasket"––Kiki Ebsen

Van Alexander, a good friend of Mr. Blank's who passed away just a few years ago, gave the world a marvelous arrangement of a song that he co-wrote with Ella Fitzgerald. Her breakout recording, when she was only 19 years old, was with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1938, but on Saturday night, 79 years later, it returned. Kiki’s version swings with joy, as she much fun singing it as Ella did delivering it. The horn section answer, following the conductor’s lead, reminds you of the grandest days of supper clubs, black tie and great entertainment nightly.

"How Long Has This Been Going On"––Valerie Perri In 1928, George and Ira Gershwin introduced this song, and it’s been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Julie London, Judy Garland, Lonette McKee, and Cher, among the myriad of singers who’ve offered their talents. Valerie Perri easily shows why it's one of her best songs.

"Ridin’ High"––Christina Saffran The ebullient talent Ethel Merman brought this Cole Porter tune to life in 1936, and Ella Fitzgerald recorded it in 1956, Peggy Lee in 1959, Doris Day in 1961, and Cleo Laine in 1971. Yet, Christina should think about recording it, as she owns the stage with the orchestra and chorus undergirding her lovely powerful vocals.

"Summertime"––Kiki Ebsen

From “Porgy and Bess,” this instantly recognizable melody from George Gershwin has two credited lyricists: DuBose Heyward (the man who wrote the novel, “Porgy”) and Ira Gershwin as well. In 1960, Leontyne Price sang it, with legendary Herbert von Karajan conducting. Naturally, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it on the Verve label. The first time I heard any non-Broadway version of this song was in 1967 when The Buckinghams (Chicago pop rock group) recorded it for their inaugural Columbia album, “Time & Charges,” in 1967. Kiki brought her own beautiful interpretation to this treasured song.

"Conductor’s Surprise"––Morton Stevens (composer)

The theme song to this TV show was written by Mort Stevens, a “prolific, Emmy-award winning film and television score composer,” and a good friend of Larry Blank. Hint: It was for a show that ran on CBS from 1968 to 1980, starring Jack Lord and James MacArthur. The show was revived by CBS in 2010 and has remained a strong part of CBS’ Friday night primetime lineup, starring Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. Pretty sure you know what it is? In introducing the song to the audience, all Mr. Blank would say as a hint was in sharing a story about his friend “Mort,” and asked the audience if they could guess the name of the song the orchestra was about to play, noting, “As Mort’s BMW license plate read, “EEGBAE.”

Mr. Blank was delighted that most of the audience was stumped as the percussion and trumpets moved right into the powerful rhythm of the opening of Morton Stevens’ fantastic song, ultimately recorded by The Ventures. Ready? Set? Book ‘em, Danno! By the way, Mr. Stevens also composed themes for other police procedurals including “Matt Helm,” and “Police Woman,” as well as being music arranger for 12 episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Mr. Stevens knew exactly what made great law enforcement themes!

"But Not For Me"––Christina Saffran

George and Ira Gershwin introduced this gem in 1930 in “Girl Crazy” and it was performed by Ginger Rogers in the musical. The beloved tune has been recorded by Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra but it was also a favorite of Ella Fitzgerald’s, as she won a Grammy for this song in 1960 for Best Female Vocal Performance on her “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook” album. Actually, Ella won 14 Grammy Awards, including “one for Lifetime Achievement” in 1967, in large part due to her interpretation of Gershwin songs among others she made her own.

"Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off"––Valerie Perri and Kiki Ebsen

First known as a song strongly identified with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (on roller skates) in the 1937 movie, “Shall We Dance,” this George and Ira Gershwin song was another favorite among Ella Fitzgerald recordings, as she lent her own inimitable style to create her own hit song. Valerie and Kiki have much fun with this tune and agree to “call the calling-off off”—there’s something special about the beauty of musical treasures--they're simply timeless.

"Somewhere over The Rainbow"––Kiki Ebsen

Kiki Ebsen’s magnificent rendition of the Harold Arlen classic from “The Wizard Oz” (1939). It’s been a favorite for 78 years, but most relevant is that it was chosen by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) as the “#1 Song of the 20th Century and by the American Film Institute (AFI) as “the Greatest Movie Song Ever.” Beyond this accolade, it’s a poignant song for Kiki and holds very special meaning.

"The Man I Love"––Christina Saffran This song has a fun history thanks to Ira Gershwin’s “Lyrics on Several Occasions,” which noted that the song ‘almost’ made it into several shows it was planned for. The original version, “The Girl I Love,” has been recorded by Michael Feinstein, and the best-known ‘next’ version, “The Man I Love,” (from web site,

“…the refrain of "The Man I Love" began as the introduction or verse to another, never completed song, a song that he can't even recall, a song written, according to George's notebooks, between April 4, and April 24, 1924. The music for this verse had, as the brothers both recognized, such an "insistent" quality about it that they agreed it should be used for something more than just an introduction. In other words, it was too good to be just a verse, so it was converted into a refrain, the main portion, for a completely new song that turned out to be "The Man I Love." (That this happened was proved when Michael Feinstein, working as an archivist for Ira Gershwin in 1982, found George's manuscripts for the song in a storage facility in Secaucus, NJ.)”

Not only did Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Tucker, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn record this song, in 1999 Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell also recorded it! Christina’s version is show-stopping of its own accord.

"Time Heals Everything"––Valerie Perri

This is a Jerry Herman song from the musical “Mack and Mabel,” that Valerie has sung before and it’s clear why it’s “her song,” as her delivery and interpretation are powerful and convincing. Not only has Michael Feinstein recorded the song, Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, and the iconic Eydie Gorme (whose version was previously my favorite, until hearing Ms. Perri sing it) have made it their own. That’s one of the exciting things about Broadway musicals; each performer brings their own style to create an entirely new song.

"Boy What Love Has Done To Me"––Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen

This George and Ira Gershwin song has resonated throughout the decades as the different combinations of hearts and minds seek and find one another to come together as a couple, no matter how unlikely the pairings. The trio was charming in their trading verses and blending on the chorus. These dynamic singers can deliver upbeat fun verses with equal panache. Although it was the final song, clearly no one wanted to go home, so Mr. Blank and the orchestra delivered the perfect encore song to cap off the evening’s selections.

"I Got Rhythm–-Encore"––Christina Saffran, Valerie Perri, and Kiki Ebsen

The finale to this resplendent program was this final George and Ira Gershwin song, from “Girl Crazy,” launched in 1930. “When George Gershwin conducted the music at the premiere…the orchestra, the Red Nichols Band, among others included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa.” The Pasadena Symphony POPS did the masters proud under Larry Blank’s baton. That’s the true measure of music excellence when a song can endure for decades and be a solid rock hit as well (remember the group The Happenings (1967) recording? It sold over 1,000,000 copies, and is still one of their most popular songs in concert today as they continue to tour. Check out this evening's rendition and hear how the chorus brought added charm to the performances. Especially in the rhythm section did the orchestra shine brightly. The three vocalists clearly enjoyed this song as they combined their exceptional voices on the final notes, bringing the crowd to another standing ovation as another great Music Under the Stars program was "one for the books."

(L to R: Valerie Perri, Larry Blank, Kiki Ebsen, and Christina Saffran, photo from on Kiki Ebsen's Facebook page.)

More Music from These Artists

If this was your first introduction to these beautiful, talented singers, you can hear more from them. Check out Christina Saffran’s “Temporary Insanity” on Amazon, and enjoy “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and the title track, among many others. Valerie’s CD, “Sweet Conversation” is available on iTunes and includes “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and “Almost Like Being in Love,” among some of her signature songs. Another personal favorite is her version of “Secret o’ Life.” Kiki’s CDs, including her most recent release “Scarecrow Sessions,” are all available on her web site. On “Scarecrow Sessions her version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is magnificent, as is her take on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Larry Blank’s recordings can be found here, and his conducting calendar can be found here.

Special Thanks Are Due

The outstanding pre-concert publicity (thank you to the tremendous marketing and PR by General Manager, Drew Flaherty and Marisa McCarthy, Director of Marketing & Public Relations) was responsible for the record crowd, as far as the eyes could see. They proved a fantastic audience, attentive during the music and expressive only in their rousing applause for the selections during the evening. That is not always the case when thousands are gathered as I’ve experienced, more times than I care to recount, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, Texas.

The Los Angeles Times and other area publications were filled with beautiful reminders, from the very earliest times, so people had this date circled on their calendar for over a month. No maximum capacity crowd generates on its own accord—it’s dedicated professionals working behind the scenes to make the magic happen.

Coming Up Next — Tickets & Gifts of Love

The Pasadena Symphony and the Pasadena POPS are the inaugural part of the full POPS subscription season, with concerts taking place typically at the L.A. County Arboretum. This summer, music lovers can expect nothing but great music all summer long. The 2017 Sierra Summer Concert Series runs from June 17 – September 9, starting with “Broadway: The Golden Age” with honoree Liza Minnelli and soloist Storm Large, conducted by Michael Feinstein, Principal Pops Conductor and holder of the Tom and Erika Girardi Chair. “Live at the Arboretum” with Leann Rimes on July 8 The Midtown Men (Music from Jersey Boys and Beyond) July 15, conducted by Larry Blank, and Michael Feinstein Sings & Swings” on July 29th, conducted by Larry Blank.

If you’re anywhere near Pasadena, California this summer and year-round, get your tickets early. Visit for information, and please consider a donation to their Annual Fund in honor or memory of someone you love, because there’s nothing quite like the gift of music, particularly for the person who has everything.

In all, it was a very special evening for the audience from the vocalists, the choralists, the Pasadena Symphony POPS Orchestra, conductor Larry Blank, the City of Pasadena, the Bank of America and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission through the L.A. Board of Supervisors.

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