Peter Nero – founding artistic director, conductor and jazz-pianist extraordinaire – led his virtuoso forces in a program of popular music written during the 1970s, reflecting on the period of the Pops' early years.
Beginning with this season, the Philly Pops is under the administrative and operational supervision of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, enabling it to offer more concerts and more varied subscription series. In the printed program and from his podium on stage, Nero emphatically stated that the artistic mission, programming and variety of guest stars appearing with the Pops would not change in any way. "You will still hear the best orchestra of its kind in the cosmos," he declared.
I noticed at least three members of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing in the group's violin section, including Pops concertmaster Michael Ludwig. This infusion of orchestra personnel among the regular mix of freelance players from the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Opera and Pennsylvania Ballet orchestras only improves the sound of the Pops.
Of course, a qualitative difference exists between a classical and a pops concert. A classical program requires of the audience an elevated level of musical introspection and awareness in order that the extended works be understood and enjoyed. That's not the case with a pops repertoire; such a program is based on orchestral arrangements of popular songs, with each number about five minutes in length.
This particular Philly Pops program was quite satisfying. With the exception of the first piece – an orchestral overture by the Russian composer Dimitry Shostakovich, which was given a sluggish and perfunctory reading – the selected repertoire sparkled with vitality, excitement, energy and humor.
Nero led most of the short, popular pieces from the piano. For the record, he's a far superior communicator, both to his players and the audience, when he conducts from his Steinway rather than from the podium.
The first half consisted of wonderful arrangements of '70s popular songs. Concertmaster Ludwig energetically tapped the rhythms of the songs with both feet. Especially enjoyable were "Just the Way You Are," by Billy Joel; Stephen Sondheim's classic "Send in the Clowns'" and "How Deep Is Your Love?" the Bee Gees hit from the movie "Saturday Night Fever."
All three began with expressive and eloquent piano solos played with elegance and finesse by Nero, followed by subtle entrances of the orchestral choirs. The strings were rich and full during the ballads, and the brass and reeds punched out the tunes in the up-tempo songs.
The percussionists in the Pops had ample opportunities to hit and shake their instruments, especially during "Copacabana," by Barry Manilow.
A minor annoyance, however, was the overamplification of the orchestra; more than 20 microphones were placed all over the stage, directing 90 percent of the sound to the large speaker array hanging from the ceiling.
Spatial cues were nonexistent; there was no sonic awareness that the violin sound came from the left, the woodwinds and brass from the center, and the cello and bass sounds from the right.
Melissa Manchester and her guitarist-conductor, keyboard player, bass player and drummer joined the Pops for the second half of the program. Manchester, a superstar singer/songwriter popular during the 1970s and '80s, presented a great showcase of her original compositions, as well as covers of songs made famous by the likes of Barbra Streisand.
Although the sound got excessively loud (Ludwig and his Philly Orchestra colleagues utilized earplugs for the second-half set), the audience seemed to love Manchester's music, musicianship, original compositions and expressive mezzo-soprano sound.
Nero then returned to lead the gang in the "Liberty Bell March" that concludes every Philly Pops concert.
>b>Cantor David F. Tilman, conductor and music educator, serves as chazzan of Beth Sholom Congregation and synagogue-skills instructor at the Forman Center of the Perelman Jewish Day School.