The State of Pops Concerts: Where Light Meets Lite

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It once meant Tchaikovsky, Sousa and Doc Severinsen. Today it also spans video-game scores, Cuban mambo bands and the Lord of the Rings Symphony. Yes, it’s high season for pops concerts. And at a time when orchestras are facing deficits, bankruptcies, and closings, pops are being taken a lot more seriously.

The Philadelphia Orchestra recently announced plans to present more light classics and film scores after it filed for bankruptcy in May. The Dallas Symphony introduced an all-pops format to its summer concert series last year. Closer to home, the New York Philharmonic has staged annual concerts of Broadway hits and even canceled its summer parks concerts while keeping an Andrea Bocelli show scheduled for September.

Are pops going to help struggling orchestras? And just what does pops mean these days? In this special podcast, WQXR Vice President Graham Parker is joined by three experts: Keith Lockhart, music director of the Boston Pops; Steve Linder, a senior vice-president at IMG Artists; and Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post.

Podcast producer: Brian Wise; Engineer: Bill O'Neil

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Comments [15]

Evan from NJ

... and Im also one of the biggest video game connoisseurs you'll ever hear of. I own MANY video game soundtracks and share them with my students. If it wasn't for me playing Final Fantasy 7 when I was a kid and being blown away and moved by the in game music, I probably might not have become a musician. I thank Nobuo Uematsu... the composer of all the final fantasy games, whom also shares my birthday. (not year... just day! :-))

Jul. 01 2011 10:42 AM
Evan from NJ

Thank you all for keeping the argument civil. And thanks for supporting my ideas too everybody! Im a newly graduated music educator from college and am saddened by all the budget cuts concerning the arts. It's a shame it's happening, but if pops music is one of the ways that will save our craft, then by all means let's jump on the train.

I know a few years ago my school's orchestra (Rutgers) did a collaboration with Jay-Z for the super bowl intro. Sadly I did NOT get to participate since I was the assistant horn and they only needed 4 out of the 5 of us in the commercial shoot. But things like that help pull us out of turmoil. I'm all for expanding the horizons that classical music can go for. It should not be something that seems archaic from the outside, but more inviting. That is how we will be able to gain more support from the outside looking in.

Obviously though... if I wasn't a classical music supporter, I would not be listening to wqxr or public broadcasting. I still think the best education is a well-rounded one that includes Mahler, Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven, as well as pops. Any kind of music will do. :-)

Jul. 01 2011 10:40 AM
jprfrog from Jersey City formerly Boston

Yes, Kathryn from Boston. I can speak from the inside: I played in the Pops for 20 seasons 9as a member of the BSO for 27) , was Fiedler's concertmaster for 2 od them, and also did some large-scale arrangements.
Personally, I found John Williams to be the best of the conductors; he was a gentleman but never became the highly, skilled conductor wanted there, Fiedler by then was an old grump and Lockhart a shallow suit, with whom there was swing neither in Ellington or Mozart. He was however very good technically and a great accompanist, which helps lot when rehearsal time is very short.

The real problem with Pops anywhere is deeper than individuals, however. When it began, say in the Twenties, the "light classics" were well known and beloved. Leroy Anderson, a genius in his own way, was very popular, and the standard song repertory (up through he early 50's) was close often in idiom to late Romantic practice that it was easy to make it sound terrific in a standard symphony. I know because I used Johnny Mercer, Arlen, Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hart etc. for my things and they worked very well. But with the advent of rock and even more recently the atavism called hip-hop, there is no way that the orchestra can sound good.

And where are the tunes that can stand with the words? Very rare, compared to the days when a Broadway show launched a dozen hits, when now they are lucky to get one.

Personally I think the way forward could be the way back, with single movements of symphonies (Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, maybe even a little Mahler?) but what do I know? I just write and play the stuff.

BTW, symphonies may be in trouble but aren't opera companies doing pretty well? (The Met would do even better IMO if they didn't spend enormous amounts putting the Valkyries on playground see-saws.)

Jun. 30 2011 03:03 PM
richard g from brooklyn

Clearly smart people are thinking about this. However, I don't think anyone has solid ideas about the mission of a pops orchestra and following through on it.

For example, the Boston Pops only performs film music only when Williams is in town. Whereas you see audiences and composers traveling great distances to go to film music festivals in Ghent Belgium and Fimucite in the Canary Islands! You really think people wouldn't turn out en masse in Boston or New York????

Jun. 30 2011 11:41 AM
Kathryn from Boston

I agree with the pro-Pops comments in theory, but in my experience, they do not play out in reality. Last year, I walked out on a Pops concert featuring Cole Porter songs because it was clear that the Broadway-star soprano didn't have any understanding of what the lyrics meant (it ain't golf they're playin', for one thing). And John Williams is in a class by himself. I was at an entirely lackluster Pops concert a few years ago when he made a surprise guest appearance to conduct Star Wars. You could hear the difference in the performance from the moment he approached the podium. The rest of my Pops experience has ranged from commercial to dreary and I personally no longer bother to attend performances. I'm all for varied programming to bring in a more diverse audience, but there has to be musical quality to keep them coming back.

Jun. 30 2011 07:35 AM
GCL from Astoria Queens

I agree with Evan from NJ. Take the score he wrote for the Indiana Jones films, on the jacket for the Raiders film, they explain why the scores does that, when he does this.

The same is true for the best known of his works, the Star Wars soundtrack was written as all of his works, in the same style as many of our composers who created some of our favorite operas.

Now take the soundtracks for the Star Trek films and yes TV shows. It happens that they are some of the best examples of music in this quadrant. In one example we can hear just why the Enterprise is there, and exactly what prompts a typical response to an extremely illogical series of events.

They have all been with us long enough to become classics. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy soundtracks also have that same capability. I have heard Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, recently. It came up on this station several days ago.

Victory at Sea turned up on Bill's excellent series several days previously. Not sufficiently of course, but enough was heard. (That one symphonic sketch told the American people over a series of several days why we were at war during the early Forties.)

How many people are aware that Rhapsody in Blue in was written for a big band? (Large format Jazz combine.) Final orchestration was done by Ferde Grofe for the Paul Whitman one.

So please don't disparage the Pops, John Williams would probably turn to a gentleman dressed in black and nod, and you'd react very strangely. In fact the one work Symphonic Star Trek does great homage to a series that strongly suggested that space travel could and can become a way of life.

Obi-Wan Kenobi said it best, "The Force will be with you. Always."

Jun. 29 2011 07:02 PM
yichihara from NJ

Totally agree with Evan from Jersey, Jeff from Chicago, and Elle from CA, also Sandra from Bayside. I’ve kept saying classical music should be more exposed, more being heard. It is now at a point close to extinction. It should not be confined, it should not be stifled. Bach, Bernstein, Beethoven, Beatles, Chopin, Dvořák, Prokofiev, John Williams, Ryuichi Sakamoto … all can be pops or classical music. What is the point we need to be so particular with drawing the line of ‘genre’?

See Yo Yo Ma, Isac Stern, Perlman, Joshua Bell, Rene Fleming … They transcend the boundary of classical music and have made contribution to bring some non-classical music fans to concert halls, radio, CDs or MP3.

You may also want to check out ‘Nodame Cantabile’, a Japanese Manga, which has contributed to turning a substantial number of young people who otherwise would not have a chance to listen to classical music to be classical music fans in Japan, to see how it was able to do so. Whatever the form or work is, beauty would be perceived as beauty. ‘Pops’ can guide the non-interested to much more broader and deeper world of the classical music, turning them to be classical music ‘newbies’.

Jun. 29 2011 05:39 PM
Banjo

Evan: Totally.

Jun. 29 2011 04:43 PM
Elle Stern from Los Gatos, CA

I have only one thing to say regarding including classical music in Pops Concerts:

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

Jun. 29 2011 02:44 PM
Sandra from Bayside

There is a lot of American classical music that has been abandoned and should be played again. When was the last time you heard Richard Rodgers' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" or "Victory At Sea" or Ferde
Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite"? I love Copland and Bernstein, but Morton Gould is sadly neglected-play some of his work
also.

Jun. 29 2011 02:39 PM
misha harnick from new york

If orchestras stop playing the classics, from Bach to Adams, the new generation will never learn about beautiful music. To play schmaltz and think this will attract young audiences to concert halls makes no sense. Instead, promote the heritage of Western music, but pray add 20th century music, and especially 20th century American composers of renown. Start them on P. Glass and lead them to Vivaldi (both sort of pop, really, now, anyway).

Jun. 27 2011 08:49 PM
Jeff Kondritzer from Chicago

"Classical Music" is, by and large, European music and generally older European music at that. It's past time that the orchestras of this country started playing music written by outstanding American orchestral composers who form the basis of what most American's listen to and enjoy. It has always puzzled me as to why Prokofief's movie music (for example) is acceptable and often performed but Elmer Bernstein's just doesn't quite make it very often. If changing what they perform brings in young and enthusiastic audiences, well then, let's do it.

Jun. 27 2011 05:54 PM
Evan from Jersey

I dont understand why you people hate pops music so much. Really... Stop hating, and stop thinking it's a cop out. Lemme ask you this... when you watched star wars or basically anything John Williams has written for movies, have you NOT EVER gotten chills just from listening? Case and point.

And another thing... if given the choice, would you rather want orchestras coming back to life through pops music or just have them die away? If anything, Pops music gets people excited and brings in the big bucks.

Jun. 27 2011 12:57 AM
Frank Feldman

The Lord of the Rings Symphony?! Classical music is doomed, deservedly so.

Jun. 26 2011 09:08 PM
David from Flushing

Pops is the sort of stuff that PBS has during pledge period and not at other times. There is a reason for this.

Jun. 26 2011 05:32 PM

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