Pops go the conductors

Posted: May 07, 2013

BOSTON had pops emissary Arthur Fiedler in charge for a phenomenal 50 years, New York its "easy listening" innovator Andre Kostelanetz for many a moon.

And here in Philadelphia, for the last 34 years, Peter Nero has been the conductor/pianist likewise synomous with pops concerts - the populist end of live symphonic music - as the founding conductor and musical director of the Philly Pops orchestra.

The time has come for a changing of the guard, though.

Two weeks ago, Michael Krajewski - the congenial, 62-year-old "new kid" in town - was leading the Philly Pops at the Kimmel Center, introducing the music and comically interacting with the audience during the Pops run of spy-tacular movie themes, "Bond and Beyond."

And this weekend, the "78-, almost 79-"year-old Nero will mount the Verizon Hall podium for what could be his last and certainly "bittersweet" (he acknowledges) run of Broadway-themed pops concerts at the Kimmel.

The maestro hopes to conduct the troupe for a show at Independence Hall July 3 "if we can get the funding." And Nero has at least one commitment to fulfill with his "family" of versatile players at the Cape May Convention Center, on May 25. After that, it's "anybody's guess" what Nero's new title as "conductor emeritus" will mean, he allowed in a recent two-hour-plus conversation.

Changing of the guard

Starting July 1, the Philadelphia institution will drop the trademarked name "Peter Nero and the Philly Pops" to become simply "Philly Pops," explained Krajewski in a separate conversation.

So, no top billing for this guy, though Krajewski is certainly a proven commodity on the circuit for his creative leadership of symphonic pops series in Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta and Houston - all relationships he'll continue in addition to the new gig here.

At a news conference held the same day that the new pope was announced, Michael K. jokingly suggested that the media anoint him "The Pope of Pops."

"But I'm no world-renowned jazz and classical pianist, like Peter Nero," Krajewski noted, respectfully. "I'm not a box-office draw, as he's always been. So we'll be placing the emphasis on the programming and our talented orchestra. They're the stars."

That's all well and good. But "half the reason we come to the shows is to hear Peter play," underscored longtime Philly Pops patron Stuart Goldstein at one Bondathon.

"In fact, we asked for seats on the left side of Verizon Hall so we can watch his hands when he's at the piano," added wife Jackie Goldstein.

Times are tough

If you've been keeping up, you know this passing of the baton has been fraught with drama between the founding conductor and the current Philly Pops president and board of directors.

Ultimately, Nero agreed to end his contract this year instead of 2014, though his lawyer recently told a reporter that Nero will get $50,000 a year for as long as he lives and Philly Pops carries on. That's about a tenth of what Nero had been earning annually in performance and administrative fees.

Playing out over several seasons, actually, there have been plenty of charges and countercharges about what's gotten the pops into a financial quagmire.

Favorite whipping boys? An aging, dwindling audience. Changes in fashion. Pricey talent and tickets. Predictable programming. A hot-and-cold-running marketing relationship - now severed again - between the pops and Philadelphia Orchestra.

In most markets, though not ours, a pops orchestra is a profitable side venture of the major symphony, using most of the same personnel but a separate conductor. Here, Nero recalled, he and All-Star Forum concert promoter Moe Septee set up the Philly Pops in 1979 as an independent entity, building on the area's high-caliber pool of versatile freelance musicians.

Then and now, the Philadelphia Orchestra deigned to dip into show tunes, cabaret jazz and light classics (like a fireworks- or cannon-fired "1812 Overture") only at Mann Center summer concerts.

Nero said he's legally bound to keep mum about the backstage drama as part of his departure settlement. But it's no secret that the man is bitter about the breakup.

And when you get him started, the chatty conductor's more than willing to share his theories about what's gone wrong in American music and orchestra support, starting with "the different mentality in the country today and the lack of music education in the schools."

"People used to take pride in their symphony orchestras instead of making fun of them," he said. "When someone says this is 'old people's music,' what the hell does that mean? I'm a modernist. I love the latest gadgets, the newest architecture. But the reason this music is called 'classical' is because it's stood the test of time. And pop classics - including the theater and movie music - all have great melodies to them."

Nero fumed on: "I have a concert bit mixing 'Moonlight Sonata' and 'Night and Day,' which both start with the same three notes. But today, younger people don't get the joke because they don't know who Beethoven and Cole Porter are."

Michael's turn

Some pundits have argued that the pops, like the Philadelphia Orchestra, needs to become less formal and more hip to attract a younger audience. But there's another school of thought, now playing out in both operations, that it's better to enliven the orchestra with younger players and a vibrant new front guy - in the Philadelphia Orchestra's case, the dynamic Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

This less-radical rethink reinvigorates the operation without alienating the "base" of traditional supporters, where most of the donor money still is.

With his strategy for the Philly Pops, Krajewski seems to fit in the theoretical middle. For the Bond concerts, he showed off modern thinking with super-splashy charts and inclusion of "Concerto for Cell Phone," a wacky piece he'd commissioned for other conducting gigs.

But in conversation, he argued that there's no need to go down-market with say, a symphonic video game or symphonic rock concert - except maybe to treat the Beatles, as he did here in March, or the Four Seasons vocal group, a tribute on next season's schedule.

"Studies have shown that the audience for a 'Zelda' [video game] concert doesn't come back for other shows," Krajewski said. "And the truth is, we don't have to go younger. There's a huge surge of baby boomers now growing into the pops concert experience."

Starting over

Ironically, much of the free time soon at Nero's disposal will be taken up by more profitable concert engagements elsewhere. "I've already got almost three dozen lined up. And will make as much money from one concert [on the road] as I do from three Philly Pops concerts."

Multiplying the irony, this semi-reluctant road warrior will fill a bunch of dates left vacant by the abrupt death (in August 2012) of his conducting/composing/pianist friend Marvin Hamlisch.

"There had actually been talk of Marvin taking over the Philly Pops," Nero shared. "He'd done quite well with the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and in guest stints with a couple of other orchestras. He was quite a draw. Philly Pops would have been lucky to get him."


Blog: philly.com/GizmoGuy

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