The Boston Pops' EdgeFest, now in its third year, seems to have a twofold purpose. The Pops wants to expand its audience to include a younger, rock-oriented demographic by engaging in collaborations with artists in which that demographic is already interested. It is also looking for programming that attempts to find a compositional place where the currently popular and classic orchestral forms can meet.
Tuesday night's performance came closest to the latter with Felix Brenner's "Travelacoustica," in a remixed version featuring DJ Paul Oakenfold and drummer Andreas Brobjer. With the appearance of Brooklyn group Hem, the show also featured what might have been the series' most satisfying collaboration to date.
Hem was brought in on short (less than two weeks') notice when the scheduled performance with M. Ward was indefinitely postponed, apparently due to difficulties in working out the arrangements on which these collaborations hinge.
It was an astute replacement choice, for Hem is no stranger to horns, strings, and the like; its music is a dreamy, sinuous amalgam of folk, country, and pop that comes wrapped in a gorgeous, atmospheric blanket of orchestration. This was the first time that the band had the opportunity to perform its songs live with full orchestra (not to mention musicians of this caliber); its members were clearly beside themselves at the chance -- singer Sally Ellyson said at one point that she was trying not to cry -- and overall they and the Pops made the most of it.
The songs chosen for Tuesday's performance included orchestration as part of their original conception. Live, therefore, the orchestra came off more as an integral part of the numbers than as mere accompaniment. And additions such as the gorgeous, muted French horn line during "I'm Not a Sailor," the soaring pedal steel and strings combinations on "Hollow," and the mandolin and clarinet interplay on "Half Acre" provided magnificent enhancements.
So, too, the prevalence of orchestration in Hem's music meant that Keith Lockhart and company were engaged throughout the performance -- although there was one curious exception, which provided a somewhat unsatisfying coda to the evening. For reasons that remain unclear, bandleader Dan Messé announced that for its encore, the band was doing a song devoid of orchestration, even as he also noted that this seemed like "a wasted opportunity." It was, and it appeared to take Lockhart and his bandmates completely by surprise. That and a few other minor flubs aside, on the whole, this was a chance to hear Hem's singular pop music in a way that it has never been heard before.