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On Nov. 12, the Harvard Pops Orchestra presented “Pops Casts a Spell,” a theatrical rendition of an original magic-infused plot in collaboration with The Harvard Undergraduate Drummers (THUD) in the Lowell Lecture Hall. Contributing to the theme, the venue was suffused with mystical purple light and some of the musicians could be spotted with twists on a traditional orchestral attire: a witch’s hat, a Gryffindor-stamped robe, and a pink feather boa, to name a few.
Harvard Pops Orchestra is a student ensemble that showcases musical concerts fused with theatrical elements, featuring orchestral playing, acting, and singing.
“I like to think of what we do broadly, presenting theatrical evenings of entertainment. We play music at a very high level, but we also integrate a fun, comic story throughout,” said Allen G. Feinstein ‘86, the music director of Pops. “One of the reasons why I enjoy working with this group is because we have that extra creative side.”
The repertoire of the concert was as much of a fusion as the presentation style, juggling between funk rock, Disney soundtracks, theater, and jazz. “We center every show around a theme, and this year’s theme is magic, so we’re playing pieces like Howl’s Moving Castle, Danse Macabre, songs from Harry Potter, and Superstition,” said Georgiy A. Kent ‘22, one of the co-presidents of Harvard Pops. Some of their past themes have included time travel, funk, and British murder mystery — around which the ensemble crafted their repertoire and even a silent film to go along with the show. “Every show — and this is why we call it a show instead of a concert — is accompanied by a plot, fully written by members of the orchestra and acted by guest actors," said Kent.
“Pops Casts a Spell” centers around its own storyline: Lily and Larry are two recently graduated wizards from Hogvard (a portmanteau of Hogwarts and Harvard), who embark on a magical mission in an effort to thwart a dark wizard’s evil schemes. Along the way, the wizards face a “Wicked” pandemic, navigate “A Whole New World” to find “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and get in “Double Trouble,” amid other episodes that are each represented by a piece of music.
The first act starts with the wicked wizard Bartholomew’s monologue, played by Jacob K. Ostfeld ‘23, accompanied by comical snippets from the magical violin, performed by Skye G. Park ‘24. At the outset of the main characters’ journey, a magic pandemic gets in their way, which the orchestra captures in a classical memento mori, “Danse Macabre” by Camille Saint-Saëns. Bone-cracking noises of the col legno and blood-red stage light contrast with the comedy introduced by the two student wizards, Lily and Larry, played by Chloe A. Saracco '22 and Benjamin A. K. Topa '22. Their conversation includes clever Harvard-related spin-offs, from redefining LS1A as Lizard Summoning and CS50 as Computational Spells.
After several adventurous turns, the wizards reach “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and the orchestra begins to play a Symphonic Variation of "Merry-Go-Round" by Joe Hisaishi.
The soloist Rachel Guo ‘22, who is a past president of Harvard Pops, was excited to be performing back in-person. “There’s just something magical — like the theme of our concert — about playing together and everyone feeling this energy in the room. I can’t express it in words, but it’s an unforgettable feeling that I’ll carry with me even after I graduate.”
Act One closes with another piece featuring a virtuosic solo: "Fiddler On The Roof" arranged by John Williams, featuring Skye G. Park '24 on the violin. “It’s not a routine medley; when people think of a medley for a music from a broadway show, they just think it’s a series of tunes,” said Feinstein. “But this medley is very different because it is a part medley and then part kind of a violin concerto.”
Act Two spotlights a guest performance by THUD (The Harvard Undergraduate Drummers), which exists as an army of The Horrendously Underrated Demons in the realm of Pops. Making use of buckets and the metal chair legs, the ensemble portrays a brooding cohort of demons that the evil wizard summons. The concert concludes with a jazzified version of Beethoven’s Fifth by Walter Murphy, playfully repeating the iconic motif as the two student wizards triumph over the dark wizard.
Though “Pops Casts a Spell” is the group’s first live performance in almost two years, Harvard Pops stayed busy over the pandemic. “With people who were interested, we met weekly and worked on creative virtual projects. We did quite a number of them, actually,” said Feinstein. From creating an original podcast melodrama to filming a funky take on classical music, Harvard Pops stayed active by creating a series of “pandemic projects” over the past year.
Still, in-person concerts are irreplaceable, especially for an ensemble like Pops that often interacts with the audience. According to the director, Harvard Pops focuses on creating a friendly and immersive experience for the audience, and last Friday’s venue was a perfect place to do so. “We perform in Lowell Lecture Hall, which is very intimate — we’re never more than a few feet away from the audience,” said Feinstein. "It’s almost like a cabaret as opposed to a big concert hall. The informality of it is something we take advantage of.”
“Pops really acts as a break in your really busy schedule to just come and play fun music,” said Kent, reflecting on his last four years as a member of Pops. “Everything comes together, and you’re sitting there and thinking all of the work that you’ve put in this semester has come to this one moment. And you’re like, ‘Oh, right, this is why I’m doing this.’”
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