Pops must craft a post-Nero artistic vision

Peter Nero of the Philly Pops is 77. Smart organizations think five years into the future. How much longer will he want to do this?
Peter Nero of the Philly Pops is 77. Smart organizations think five years into the future. How much longer will he want to do this? (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: September 23, 2011

Peter Nero once told me that he could deal with the abstraction of dying someday; it was the idea of not working that really spooked him.

Nero will continue working. The Philly Pops, the ensemble founded by impresario Moe Septee in 1979, will skip its usual fall series, but they'll be back in December. A severance deal with the Philadelphia Orchestra should give them a nucleus of funding to get through the 2011-2012 season, and there are reasons to be hopeful beyond that, including a reinvigorated board.

Nero - a fine conductor, two-time Grammy winner, frequent crossword puzzle item, and an elegant pianist of high invention and staggering technique - is more of a fixture in the city than any musician has been since Eugene Ormandy. He is the Philly Pops, and he's got the papers to prove it. In the agreement with the orchestra, he retains legal rights to the name:

Peter Nero and the Philly PopsĀ®.

It is the fact that the two are inseparable that adds urgency to the need to immediately begin separating them. Nero is, as the saying goes, irreplaceable. His particular experience and skill set - a jazz pianist and conductor whose repertoire spans Gershwin to the 1812 Overture to Broadway and movie scores - can be found in no other artistic embodiment. Nero is 77. Smart organizations think five years into the future. How much longer will he want to do this?

In its post-Philadelphia Orchestra Association era, the Pops' to-do list is daunting. It needs a strategic plan, and has enough artistic promise that it deserves special funding to commission a deeply soul-searching blueprint. It must rebuild staff and its fund-raising capacity, eventually raising an endowment. Artistic offerings must grow beyond the nostalgia shows and Broadway excerpts that have become standard.

And it has to become comfortable with the idea that Nero won't be around forever and everything that means. Building an organization around a personality works extremely well, until one day, quite suddenly, it doesn't.

Fortunately, the Pops has barely scratched the surface of repertoire and artistic concepts that could provide artistic growth and many happy points of contact with the listening public. There is a wide swath of popular repertoire that neither the Philly Pops nor the Philadelphia Orchestra performs on a regular basis. Let's call it middlebrow: light classics of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rachmaninoff and Grofe; Nelson Riddle's rich orchestrations of jazz standards; classic American musicals; Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Gershwin, and Marc Blitzstein; neglected American composers like Stephen Foster, Duke Ellington, and Gottschalk; and shows aimed at families, such as John Lithgow's Singin' in the Bathtub and Jean-Pascal Beintus' modern answer to Peter and the Wolf, Wolf Tracks.

While we're at it, why shouldn't the Pops be commissioning the Pops repertoire of tomorrow?

The wild card, of course, is the extent to which the Philadelphia Orchestra plans to play in this realm. When the orchestra's strategic plan speaks of "repertoire shifts" into light classical, Broadway, film scores, and other pop genres - that language comes directly from the strategic plan - it seems to be aiming for some of the Philly Pops' traditional territory.

"For example," the plan states, "we may create a concert version of a Broadway show as a special event or on our subscription programming."

The severance agreement between the Philadelphia Orchestra Association and Encore Series Inc. (the Pops' legal entity) does not include a real noncompetition clause. But it certainly would not be in the spirit of the orchestra's stated goal in the plan of being sensitive to the arts "ecosystem" for the two groups' artistic planning to proceed without close cooperation.

Artistic strengths should dictate direction. The Philadelphia Orchestra can't swing like the Pops; certain instruments in particular - trumpets, trombone, clarinet, percussion - are highly specialized for one genre or the other. Some repertoire straddles both. When Audra McDonald sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2010, she could just as easily have been backed by the Philly Pops. Both groups will have to learn to accept that reality.

Overlap isn't a danger elsewhere. The Philadelphia Orchestra has cut back its concerts at the Mann and in neighborhoods, and no group is better poised for a big summer presence than the Pops. The Boston Symphony Orchestra goes to the Berkshires in summer, the Cleveland Orchestra likes to winter with its patrons in Florida. It's perplexing that no Philadelphia orchestra goes to the Shore between June and August. From a demographic matchmaking perspective, it's easy to imagine the Pops finding great success in Atlantic City or Cape May, importing its nostalgia machine and light summer classics.

The Pops seems a natural for Longwood Gardens, which has recently doubled its performing arts series and is contemplating an expansion of facilities.

All these possibilities, however, must flow from an artistic vision. And while Nero has shown nearly unerring judgment in terms of guest artists and repertoire, it can't last forever. No one wants Nero to go away, least of all me. But if his legacy is going to last, he's got to move into a slow segue.

The possibilities are enormous. For the Pops, the future (to paraphrase the Gershwins) can be had for a song: Nice work if they can get it, and they can get it if they try.


Contact Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at http://www.philly.com/artswatch.

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