For most people, winning multiple Grammy awards and being one of the most recorded and respected musical artists in the country would suffice. Fortunately, Peter Nero isn’t like most people. He decided that critical and professional success wasn’t enough, so he went on to establish and conduct the Philly Pops.
Now on the verge of opening up its 25th anniversary season, the pops orchestra has become the standard to which the rest of the industry holds itself.
In December of 1979, after being approached by a promoter from the All Star Forum, Nero conducted a trial POPS concert in Philadelphia. After that performance’s success, subsequent engagements led to the founding of the Philly POPS. Under the baton of Maestro Nero, the Philly POPS ensemble has become one of the most celebrated and innovative pops orchestras in the nation.
Traditionally, most pops orchestras have been regarded as second-class citizens in the classical music community, often run by associate conductors who use the ensemble as a stepping-stone for “higher” aspirations. The programs were filled with light classical pieces in the first half and headlined by a star with a household name in the second.
The Philly Pops orchestra has deviated from that formula and re-written the rules.
The orchestra is highlighted in one of the most beautiful and modern concert halls in America, Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Center City.
Instead of falling into the same drab formula of program filler and headlining guest stars, the Philly Pops ensemble organizes thematic programs. Guest stars are brought in and carefully orchestrated so that they do not dominate the concert.
As Executive Director Steven P. Haines explains, “The star is Peter and the band.”
Nero additionally asserts that, “We’ve found that our audiences are really interested in the quality that we’ve put into [the Philly Pops] over the years.”
In twenty-five years time, Nero has instilled a distinct tradition of both excellence and entertainment.
Known for the games he plays with the audience, Nero acts as the Master of Ceremonies during the concert, allowing the audience to share the musical experience with the musicians.
“The trick is,” Nero said, “to make them want to come back.”
And making them come back is what Nero does best. He draws the audience into the music with an amiable personality and a knack for programming crowd pleasers, but not at the expense of quality or musical integrity.
The ensemble, with a talent and professional attitude that rivals that of any classical orchestra, takes each performance very seriously and approaches the music with the respect it deserves.
Nero attributes much of the success of the Philly Pops to the strong effort put forth by the team of musicians and executives necessary to run the organization. He lavishes much credit upon Executive Director Haines, stating that, “It’s my job to bring the people back in, but it’s his job to get them in the first place and he does a fantastic job on that.”
The musicians also make a strong commitment to the orchestra. They often find playing in the POPS a fantastic experience, both from performing a repertoire not normally seen with a symphony orchestra and from working with Nero.
With the upcoming 25 anniversary season, the organization plans not to overdo things because “there’s still going to be a 26th season,” Haines said.
There are some large highlights this year, however.
Four Broadway stars and legends are appearing in their program entitled Broadway Showstoppers in Concert in late January, where re-enactments of the actual shows will take place on stage with the orchestra.
The popular Peter Principal will also play a special engagement where the audience will vote to hear their favorite compositions.
A POPS album is also in the works.
With a rare combination of high-quality music and top entertainment, the Philly Pops ensemble has established a unique niche in the cultural landscape of Philadelphia.
Noah Potvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.