Building a symphonic pops program around James Bond film music is fraught with danger, though not in ways thrill-seeking Bond fans might like.
Though the John Barry scores to the earlier Bond films could not be more iconic, they also have the dimension of a Hollywood-studio set: Aside from the theme songs, the music introduces the action with a quick, arresting impression and stands back while the film takes care of the rest.
So Michael Krajewski, music director-designate of Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, was right to stray from the central concept in his "Bond and Beyond" concert Saturday afternoon at the Kimmel Center. He had the good sense to employ singer Debbie Gravitte for the hit songs, interspersed with orchestral excerpts, revealing music's relationship to the Bond genre: It either launches a frontal attack (the James Bond theme) or plays obliquely off the genre with dreamy ballads (as in "You Only Live Twice").
The concert's climactic Bond medley, played with all the necessary brass and swagger, wasn't so interesting. This music was created for visual images that weren't there. Bond music that does command the foreground is hard to play with a straight face. Gravitte has all of the hot Shirley Bassey notes for "Goldfinger," but being a Broadway performer, she couldn't help delving more heatedly into the song's lurid warnings - with odd, gothic results.
So you welcomed a bit of swinging '60s camp when Gravitte emerged in a blonde wig, zebra dress, and go-go boots for "Secret Agent Man." And just because Peter Nero wasn't leading the concert didn't mean The Pink Panther Theme went unheard (since, after all, those films represented the comic side of the spy genre).
The farther away the concert went from Bond, the better it was. Ames M. Stephenson's Concerto for Cell Phone was just what it said it was and hilarious. With the song "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy, this Stephen Sondheim mini-masterpiece has so much character and narrative that Gravitte dispensed with her audience-wowing vocal tricks and took you on a seductive journey.
As for Krajewski, his patter was just dandy. No punch lines were cheap. None failed. His evaluation of the Kimmel Center's lobby-dominating time machine was great: "It worked! When I came to the end, I was five minutes into the future! Not much had changed."
He's not a flamboyant conductor and isn't a master improviser like Nero. But he's the most likable podium presence this side of Bramwell Tovey. Yet future programs need more substance. The concerts are pops, but are still places where people sit down to listen to music.