BWW Feature: The New York Pops Readies Itself for an Eclectic Second Half of Season
The New York Pops brands itself as "a different kind of orchestra," and the proof is in the programming.
The orchestra, the largest independent orchestra in the United States, will begin the second half of its season on Friday, March 10, 2017, with a LIFE IS A CABARET: KANDER & EBB, celebrating the music of the legendary duo, and continuing a season (and organization mission) dedicated to featuring a wide variety of performers, composers, and genres.
"Being a Pops orchestra, we're so incredibly versatile to be able to play everything from light classical music to film scores, big band, even country and hip and hop, that I try to really show off what the orchestra of capable of doing," Steven Reineke, Music Director and conductor of the Pops, said. "But most importantly it's about entertaining the audience and providing a nice wide array of offerings so that the people get a varied taste of music throughout the season."
The Pops opened its 2016-2017 season in October with THE MUSICAL WORLD OF LERNER AND LOEWE, a celebration of the music of legendary duo, featuring Laura Osnes (CINDERELLA, BONNIE AND CLYDE), Colin Donnell (HOLIDAY INN, ANYTHING GOES), opera baritone Nathan Gunn, and Essential Voices USA (led by Judith Clurman). The program featured music from BRIGADOON, GIGI, CAMELOT, and, of course, MY FAIR LADY, a timely pairing with the 60th anniversary of the classic, and maybe even more timely with the recently-announced MY FAIR LADY revival directed by Bartlett Sher (kismet, as Sher will be one of the Pops's Birthday Gala honorees in May).
The orchestra also had the opportunity to take the band out on the road to the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post for the venue's gala on October 22. The evening served as a reunion of sorts for everybody's favorite love-to-hate show SMASH (or as much of a reunion as it could be for two stars who rarely, if ever, crossed paths on screen), but, even more so, a collaboration between two of Broadway's biggest stars: Megan Hilty (ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL) and Brian d'Arcy James (SOMETHING ROTTEN!, HAMILTON).
The two featured artists performed individual sets before coming together for a few songs, and then performing their signature songs ("At the Fountain" from SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS for James and "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES for Hilty). For the audience it was a thrilling evening to see two powerhouses of stage and screen perform together; for the Pops, a chance to perform for a different audience who aren't necessarily making it to Carnegie to see the orchestra live.
"I love to take the orchestra out into the community and do other venues and I certainly hope we'll go back there," Reneike said. "[It's] also a chance to be in somebody else's neighborhood to make it easy for them to see the New York Pops."
The Pops also hosted its holiday family concert 'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS on December 18, and on December 19 welcomed concertgoers to Carnegie for MAKE THE SEASON BRIGHT to spread some holiday cheer. There is an undeniable thrill in hearing well-known holiday tunes played with a massive orchestra, and the Pops are no exception.
The evening's vocalists consisted of two sibling pairs: the twin brother team of Anthony Nunziata and Will Nunziata, and the dynamo sister duo of Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway. The pairs performed Christmas classics and original songs alike, and the evening culminated the only way it really could: with Santa Claus himself (aided by the help of a North Pole elf, of course) leading a hall-wide sing-along to "Jingle Bells."
But seemingly most resonate to Reineke was the orchestra's CONCERT FOR COURAGE this past Veteran's Day, November 11, a concert paying homage to the US Armed Forces.
"I worked tirelessly on that program to make it really meaningful. It had a lot of feel-good Americana, but I wanted to really get down to the heart of veterans and their sacrifices that have been made, too."
Joined by The Soldiers' Chorus of The US Army Field Band (led by Associate Bandmaster First Lieutenant Alexandra Borz), the Pops played a program filled to the brim with patriotism and allowing for reflection. The focal point of the evening was Aaron Copland's "Letter From Home," a composition Copland wrote about correspondences between families and loved ones and soldiers who are off at war during World War II. For the concert, Reineke chose three letters from soldiers or from their families to soldiers (one from a WWII veteran, one from a Vietnam veteran, and the third from a young man fighting in Iraq who died in combat whose letter had to be delivered to his family) for select members of The Soldiers' Chorus to read over the music. The piece was followed up by John Williams' "Hymn to the Fallen" from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and had an audience in tears.
It was a powerful and poignant moment, and an opportunity to step back--- in the broadest sense and in the midst of post-Election Day chaos--- to appreciate the sacrifices made
"It turned out also that all of us--- myself and everybody included--- we were having a little election fatigue. It was a very difficult time in November for a lot of people, and it turned out the comments I got from people afterwards were, 'Wow, this is just what we needed to feel good again, to feel patriotic and good about America right now.'"
Reineke and the Pops are looking ahead to the rest of their season, which kicks off Friday, March 10 with LIFE IS A CABARET: THE SONGS OF KANDER AND EBB, a large sampling of the collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb, from CHICAGO to CABARET, and everything in between. Joining the orchestra on stage to celebrate the legendary duo will be Caissie Levy (LES MISERABLES, GHOST THE MUSICAL) and Tony Yazbeck (FINDING NEVERLAND, ON THE TOWN), and the show will serve a dual purpose: a birthday bash of sorts for Kander, who turns 90 later this month.
On April 21, the Pops will venture into contemporary territory with YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND: A CELEBRATION OF SINGERS AND SONGWRITERS to pay tribute the work of great American singers, songwriters, and singer-songwriters such as Carole King, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, and others. They'll be joined by Will Chase (SOMETHING ROTTEN!, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD), Jessie Mueller (WAITRESS, BEAUTIFUL: THE Carole King MUSICAL), Adrienne Warren (SHUFFLE ALONG), and one more yet-to-be-announced performer.
"We have great respect for the history of the Great American Songbook and music and we represent that, but we're constantly expanding our boundaries and our repertoire as to the most current and contemporary presentations we can put on, as well," Reineke said.
Impressive as always, this year's Birthday Gala on May 1--- Number 34--- will honor the legendary Tony Award winners Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher (SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA) with a star-studded line-up including Danny Burstein, Ruthie Ann Miles, Osnes, Paulo Szot, Jason Robert Brown and Nico Muhly.
"Every year, people say the same thing, including myself: 'How the hell are we gonna top that?' Reineke said. "That's the big challenge, but when your honorees are Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher, it'll be pretty easy to put together a great show, and it's coming together really beautifully."
Beyond the remainder of the 2016-2017 season, the orchestra has much in its purview, including an already-announced 2017-2018 35th season that will celebrate the work of female composers and lyricists, the history of R&B, blockbuster film scores, and the history of the Pops/centennial of founder Skitch Henderson's birthday, and feature artists such as James Monroe Iglehart, Megan Hilty, and Betsy Wolfe.
They will also, of course, continue to build upon long-standing work, including the PopsEd education program. PopsEd and, specifically, the Kids in the Balcony program, gives 100 tickets to each Pops subscription concert performance at Carnegie Hall to kids across the five boroughs of New York. Since its inception in 1990, over 37,000 students in New York have attended concerts free of charge.
In addition to her multiple performances with the Pops, Osnes has an expanded role working with the Pops as a recently-appointed Ambassador of PopsEd, with a focus on Kids in the Balcony.
"My dad took me a couple times to see orchestral concerts and I think the gift of music is something everyone should be able to experience," she said in an interview with BroadwayWorld late last year. "Seeing those concerts at a young age, for me, definitely inspired a love of music in me, so to be able to pass that on to this generation of kids is really vital."
"She's wonderful because she really does care about music education and about the kids and the great outreach we do for our music education programs, so she's been very involved in making sure that word gets spread about the wonderful work the New York Pops does with our PopsEd programs," Reineke said.
Behind the walls of Carnegie, the Pops will continue to play a summer season at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. But for those out of the city, or even those not able to foot the bill for a live concert, there are plans in the hopefully near future, according to Reineke, to be able to stream concerts.
It's all about making making this "different kind of orchestra" more accessible and familiar to music lovers, no matter how familiar they may or may not be with traditionally classical ensembles.
"I feel really good about what we're doing because we have the opportunity to be speaking a musical language that can speak to a wide, wide swath of people... that might be feel a little intimidated," Reineke says. "They can feel welcome to come to a program of ours, if it's the music of John Williams or the music of an R&B showcase or any number of things."
Additional reporting by Casey Mink. The New York Pops continues its season with LIFE IS A CABARET: THE SONGS OF KANDER AND EBB on March 10, 2017 at Carnegie Hall. For tickets and information about the rest of the season, visit www.newyorkpops.org.
Ashley Steves is BroadwayWorld's Cabaret Editor and an arts and entertainment writer based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @NoThisIsAshley. Casey Mink is BroadwayWorld's Chief New York Cabaret Critic and is an entertainment journalist in New York City, focusing on the performing arts. Follow her on Twitter @Casey_Mink.