MOLINE -- At 38, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart is the same age that composer George Gershwin was when he died suddenly of a brain tumor in 1937.
Mr. Lockhart shares Gershwin's unpretentious exuberance and his wish to communicate the love of music to the widest possible audience.
Sunday night's concert by the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra at The Mark both honored Gershwin's immortal genius -- by recognizing the centenary of his birth -- and offered many reasons why the zest and informality of Mr. Lockhart continues to win the Boston Pops new fans and keep the old ones.
While Mr. Lockhart, in his fourth season leading ``America's orchestra,'' is 38, he seems all of 18 on the podium. With his boyish good looks, that point especially hit home as Mr. Lockhart took off a white sport coat, donned a white baseball cap and took up a bat during ``The National Game March'' in the middle of Sunday's program.
Mr. Lockhart provided some rhythmic accents with the bat, which he also used to conduct this lesser-known Sousa march. One has trouble picturing former Pops maestro John Williams doing the same.
The theme of this summer's Pops tour has been ``Americana,'' from the beloved national pastime to the lure of the Mississippi River. Despite this being Mr. Lockhart's third appearance in Moline, he didn't know Ole Miss flowed through here and he abruptly referred to our arena as ``The Mark of the Quad.''
Those quibbles aside, he is a natural, self-effacing showman and could do no wrong with the appreciative crowd of about 8,000. He had fun and we had fun.
The sweeping panorama of America was established quickly from the start, in the Williams ``Liberty Fanfare.'' Regal, swiftly-climbing trumpets conveyed the grandeur and hope of the country, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty.
Similarly short pieces by Ron Nelson and Ferde Grofe captured the jaunty, jubilant flavor of the South, as well as Grofe's warm, reflective impression of the Mississippi.
Pianist Leon Bates joined the orchestra in a powerful performance of Gershwin's ``Rhapsody in Blue.'' Written when the composer was just 25, it's fiendishly difficult to play, but under the commanding hands of Mr. Bates, it was dazzling and heartrendingly beautiful.
At times, the pianist seemed to go too fast and slipped at times -- out of the urge to overwhelm -- but he expertly supplied a forceful sense of drama, contrast and flexibility in tempo. Mr. Bates' extra pianistic flourishes, lending a further improvisatory quality to the jazzy work, pleasantly kept you guessing even if you've heard the piece a thousand times.
The Gershwin tribute continued after intermission, with lush arrangements of love songs and a brisk version of ``Fascinating Rhythm,'' as fizzy and refreshing as a cherry seltzer soda on a summer day.
Another highlight of the concert came during the baseball section, after Mr. Lockhart led us in the national anthem and ``Take Me Out to the Ball Game.'' Veteran sportscaster Curt Gowdy, cap on head, supplied an appropriately theatrical reading of ``Casey at the Bat,'' set to picture-perfect music.
Mr. Gowdy confessed to being nervous, but the 12-time Emmy winner was easily authoritative and put his all into bleating the calls of strikes.
Bowing to current hits, the Pops shone a new light with a sensitive arrangement of the love theme from ``Titanic,'' as modulation and orchestral color lent surprise and subtlety to what had become an overblown, tiresome lite-radio song.
In a string of other favorites, including a wonderful medley of Jerome Robbins musicals, the Pops again played with its customary energy, flair and polish. Mr. Lockhart even left the stage at one point, and the group didn't miss a beat. But we missed him.