Divine drama

You never know what might happen at a Harvard Pops concert. But this year's show is designed (by students) to be heavenly. 

By Cherie Hu '17

With a program of Greek gods, Lady Gaga and unpredictable moments of theater, the Harvard Pops Orchestra does not offer a typical orchestra experience or even a typical pops experience.

It’s not in every program, after all, that you get to hear excerpts from Gustav Holst’s classic work The Planets alongside Gaga’s latest single Perfect Illusion. Neither is it with every orchestra that members exert full creative control over the year’s programming and incorporate multiple art forms – music, theater, dance ­– into performances.

These elements will coalesce in the Harvard Pops’ fall concert Oh My Gods: A Divine Drama, 8 p.m. Friday Oct. 21 at Lowell Lecture Hall. Founded in 1996 by Eric Damast ‘97, Harvard Pops will celebrate its 20th birthday with a fantastical yet appropriately Harvard-specific plotline centered around two demigods who descend from the skies to spend time on Earth at Harvard’s campus. The concert will take place under the baton of Allen Feinstein '86, who has directed Pops for 11 years and also serves as the music department head advisor at Northeastern University.

The Pops concert format is unique among Harvard’s orchestras in that students dictate the overall theme, specific repertoire and even an original storyline with guest actors for each show. Anyone in the orchestra can join the creative team, which is in charge of devising these storylines.

“I knew when I came to Harvard, I wanted to join an orchestra where I could get involved in more creative aspects of the ensemble, like picking the repertoire and writing the script for shows,” said Norma Hylton ‘18, who plays percussion in Pops and serves as the group’s co-president. “It keeps me more engaged.”

Music is far ranging including classical pieces such Holst’s Jupiter and Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, non-classical favorites such as Perfect Illusion, themes from Disney-Pixar’s Up and Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle – keeping in time with the evening’s divine, celestial context.

“We still keep in touch with classical music, maintaining a sense of orchestral familiarity, while also getting to explore a much wider variety of genres,” said Jiha Min ‘18, a violinist and co-president of Pops. She played primarily in classical orchestras before attending Harvard. “A lot of the music we play also wasn’t originally written for orchestra,” she said, “so it’s really interesting to see how students manipulate and tailor that music for Pops.”

Guest actors and singers for Friday’s concert include Kyle Whelihan ‘17, Nadia Wall (née Urrea) ‘17 and Grace Ramsey ‘19. While students write the show’s overall script ahead of time, the actors’ performance will be more spontaneous.

“I’m particularly excited about the improvisatory nature of the show,” said Whelihan, who will play a demigod named Titus. “A lot of the blocking and interactions we do as actors are entirely made up on the spot. It’s really nice to have more agency as a performer and to experiment with a lot of different types of expression – being able to decide for myself how I’m going to deliver a certain line or what I’m going to do to make the audience laugh in a particular moment.”

If previous Pops concerts are any indication, the orchestra’s instrumentalists will also do some acting of their own: providing commentary and backup vocals for the soloists, breaking into dance, tearing down the fourth wall and inviting the audience to participate in the fun. It may be that the spirit of a pops concert inspires this type of “drama.” But the mash-up of talent and surprises is also an indication of how student ensembles at Harvard are leveraging a wide range of genres and art forms to break the mold of traditional concert formats and to redefine the concert experience on their own accord.

The Harvard Pops will present Oh My Gods: A Divine Drama, 8 p.m. Friday, October 20 at Lowell Lecture Hall. Tickets are available from the Harvard Box Office.