American Festival Pops Orchestra

Previews and Reviews

Stunning New Hylton Arts Center Opens in Manassas

May 24, 2010 - Curtain Up! by Terry Ponick of The Washington Times

Manassas, VA—Residents of Manassas and Prince William County partied hearty this pass weekend as they celebrated the opening weekend of the spectacular new Hylton Performing Arts Center. The latest, and perhaps most astonishing addition to a metro area already rich in fine performance spaces, perhaps the most astounding thing about this impossible dream-come-true is that it happened in the teeth of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Maybe America's on the comeback trail after all.

Built at a cost of $46 million, the new center was built with multiple purposes in mind, including performances by local, national, and international artists. Rising from the still somewhat raw-looking Manassas campus of George Mason University, the Center is a cooperative partnership involving Prince William County, Manassas City, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and of course, George Mason University.

Celebratory events happened throughout the weekend and included an evening of Scotch-Irish music on Friday, May 21; a Gala concert by the American Festival Pops Orchestra on May 22; and a Family Day celebration on May 23.

We took advantage of an opportunity to attend the American Festival Pops Orchestra concert Saturday evening, which also afforded us the opportunity to get our first look at this impressive new facility.

The Center boasts not one but two major performances spaces, the 1,121-seat Merchant Hall, and the more intimate 270 seat Gregory Family Theater. The spaces are united by flowing into a colorful, eclectic 7,300 square foot lobby and foyer christened the Didlake Grand Foyer that seems to soar into an infinity of glass and light.

Easily accessible via I-66, the Hylton’s striking exterior is a wonder of brick, glass and concrete shapes. Its sweeping, broadly overhanging roof provides plenty of shelter for patrons arriving in inclement weather, something that’s often neglected in new performance spaces.

Inside, the spacious foyer is at once open and intimate, flanked by glass and stunning copper sheeting running along one interior wall, the entirety supported by oddly gracious columns of sculpted raw structural concrete. The rakish grand staircase is decorated with colorful textile backdrops, an interesting contrast with the smooth industrial materials that predominate.

Saturday’s concert took place inside Merchant Hall whose concert shell is enveloped by scalloped walls in a dark wood tone. Interestingly, this acoustical shell can apparently be reconfigured in a variety of ways to support concerts and staged performances of opera and dance alike.

The hall’s striking interior does away with the traditional shoebox format, replacing it with a horseshoe configuration that ingeniously makes every seat a good one in that each seat, no matter how far back, remains quite close to the performance space. We were seated very close to the front—not always the best place to be in a concert venue for visuals. But our eyes were still close to stage level, which didn’t force us to crane our necks to see, as is often the case in such seats.

Acoustics of the hall seemed quite lively, although the American Festival Pops strings were occasionally overwhelmed by the brass at least from our vantage point. That’s something that often happens in front row seats, however, due to the angle of the sound as it travels outward. So we’ll reserve comments on the hall’s acoustics for a later visit when we can try a seat a bit further back.

As for American Festival Pops program itself, it seemed tailor made for a dramatic new venue situated a bit off the beaten metro path. There were new favorites and old, a bit light on the heavy classics, a bit stronger on big band-style jazz and Broadway pop.

Maestro Anthony Maiello, virtually bouncing with excitement and enthusiasm like much of his audience, opened the evening, appropriately, with a sing-along rendition of the Star Spangled Banner—but with a long overdue and welcome surprise.

While our National Anthem is a great tune, it is, frankly, pitched so that only a Metropolitan Opera Soprano can sing it competently. Its broad, dramatic melody starts low and soars impossibly high, forcing most male singers to either abandon ship at times or quickly drop down an octave.

Maestro Maiello simply pitched the whole thing down for the guys for once in our lives. The initial low notes may have challenged the ladies a bit, but the rest was smooth sailing for almost everyone. I’ve been on this planet for quite awhile, now, and I’m surprised that no one I’ve heard besides Anthony Maiello has ever bothered to try this. Kudos, big time.

The National Anthem was followed by the most “classical” item on the evening’s program, Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture.” An atypically lively, happy composition by this most serious of composers, it set just the right flashy tone for the rest of the evening and was performed with an almost military crispness by this still-new area ensemble.

After a fine rendition of “America the Beautiful,” featuring the evening’s top star, soprano Lisa Vroman as alto saxophonist Jim Carroll--and, later, four more of his closest saxophone friends—performed two big band numbers with the orchestra. A bit later, trombonist Harry Watters also appeared to play a jazzy theme-and-variations version of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

Rounding out the big band portion of the evening, Mr. Maiello and the orchestra played a hyperkinetic medly of famous James Bond tunes. Whatever you think of Mr. Bond and his friends, these movie theme songs are consistently among the best ever written, and it was great to hear some of the older ones performed once again.

The concert’s first half concluded with a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra did a nice job with this material, sounding almost Paul Whiteman-esque at times.

In the second half Broadway’s Lisa Vroman took the stage for a full set of songs with the orchestra. A former student of Maestro Maiello back in her college days, she’s made quite a career for herself in New York, performing in a variety of shows, most notably starring as Christine in Phantom of the Opera. Hers is a gracious, flexible instrument that’s equally at home with the quiet emotions of a love song and with the brassier elements of a big Broadway show.

Ms. Vroman sang popular songs by Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Lowe, breaking up the selections with a comic take on her adventures during the long run of Phantom.

Maestro Maiello concluded the evening, appropriately, with another patriotic medley, this time, brief versions of each of the U.S. Armed Forces’ classic service marches. Vets were invited to stand during their respective branch’s marches, and that they did, providing a fitting, All-American conclusion to a marvelously enjoyable evening.

The Hylton Performing Arts Center will ramp up a full program for the upcoming season, its first. For pictures, details, information, and tickets, check out their website here:

Meanwhile, a big hat tip to Anthony Maiello and his enthusiastic new orchestra; and to all the companies, individuals, institutions, and governments that got together to make this magnificent new performing arts center happen during, arguably, the worst of times. It’s an inspiration to us all.