Philly Pops is back

(Early version of review slated to appear Friday.)

 The theme from “Summer of 42.”

“Days of Wine and Roses.”

The Liberty Bell March.

Peter Nero and the Philly Pops are back. Not that they were gone long. After becoming entangled in the Philadelphia Orchestra Association’s bankruptcy, the Pops missed its usual launch this past fall. After a run of holiday concerts in December, the 2011-12 subscription season opened in Verizon Hall Wednesday night, all the usual touches intact.

For some, Nero’s adherence to formula might come across as tired. But don’t underestimate the power of a well-oiled nostalgia machine, especially in a market like ours, where history telescopes so tightly that the Beach Boys and Bee Gees rank as comers. Wednesday’s audience was one of those knowing crowds that recognized the tune in the four-bar intro and snapped fingers on the right beat. Nero and his band have a direct line into the emotional lives of their listeners.

The theme of the current run – repeated three times this weekend – is “A Night at the Oscars,” but like all boxes Nero puts around programming, the packaging bulges to accommodate him. All the justification needed to trot out Rhapsody in Blue was the mention of Robert Alda and the 1945 Gershwin biopic. Other groups might have used this night to show film clips, explore the relationship between music and image, or to rewrite a historical judgment that declared the movie composer as something lesser. That’s not the Philly Pops. Instead, what we got was Nero at the keyboard in a ten-minute (!) version of Rhapsody in Blue. Any excuse to hear Nero play piano is fine with me. He has an authority with Gershwin that might be unique – where he chooses to place accents in a phrase, how he manipulates tempos so that bar lines disappear and note values blur. Nero achieves the most elegant hybrid of classical and jazz traditions you’re likely to hear live today.

A tease from Sunday in New York hinted at what might have been possible with a little more enterprise. Nero provided the soundtrack to the 1963 vehicle for an ingénue named Jane Fonda. It’s a hipster score – music so dated it’s cycled back to being terrific – and the quick excerpt at this concert only served to fire the imagination about what else deserves to be revived from several decades of the Nero files. Nero is a pop culture treasure. Why shouldn’t the Pops be making the most of this time?

Artistic stretch was less abundant elsewhere in the two-hour program. Broadway vocalists Jodi Benson and Sal Viviano were in and out all evening in a variety of songs featured in film. Both are extremely professional - in firm possession of a smooth stage presence, unerring intonation, and, vocally, both are in their prime. The blandness? It might only matter to someone in search of introspection or layers. The pair worked well in duos. Benson - perhaps best know as the speaking and singing voice of Ariel in the animated film The Little Mermaid, and Tour Guide Barbie in Toy Story II – was impressive, in a way, in “When You Wish Upon A Star.” The arrangement put her voice in a range higher than might have been comfortable for some. A little yearning or vulnerability might have made sense. Benson, though, is the conquering, not the wishing, type: not even the orchestrations - big, big, big – could hold a good Disney soprano down.