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To paraphrase one of my favourite Robertson Davies characters, Beethoven’s Fifth is eternal, but orchestral pops is ephemeral. Every generation, the century-old tradition of mixing popular music and symphony orchestra declines, then someone comes along to give it new life.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, faced with an aging, dwindling audience for its pops series, has hired American energizer-bunny composer/arranger/conductor Steven Reineke through to the 2014-15 season to attempt the genre’s latest need for first-aid in Toronto.
His first concert as principal pops conductor is tonight at Roy Thomson Hall.
Reineke made his début with the Toronto Symphony at age 27, 15 years ago, and has been back nearly every year to conduct one of the organization’s half-dozen annual pops programmes.
“It’s kind of like we’ve been dating a long time and now it’s official,” he says, laughing. “We finally got engaged. It felt like a very natural progression.”
This week’s inaugural programme with Reineke in charge is a salute to the Broadway music of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. There are three performances — tonight, tomorrow afternoon and tomorrow evening.
Presenting highlights from South Pacific, Mary Poppins and the Sound of Music does not exactly sound like a recipe for freshness, but Reineke begs to differ. He says it’s important to respect the likes of the traditional, older pops audience, which grew up with these scores.
But he is also attuned to the interests of younger music lovers, so the guest singers are up-and-comers. The youngest is 29-year-old Ottawa-born University of Toronto graduate baritone Jonathan Estabrooks. The best known is Ashley Brown, the original Mary Poppins in the Broadway show that opened in 2006.
“These younger singers have their own take on the music, they make it fresh,” says the conductor and arranger.
Reineke has been working with pops orchestras for a long time, having apprenticed with pops master Erich Kunzel, himself a frequent guest of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra before he died in 2009.
Kunzel had come along in the mid-1960s to revive interest in the pops concert just as the generation reared on Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops was beginning to die off. Now, people like Reineke are seeing what is to be done during another big generational change.
Some of the programming involves bringing video game, television and movie music into the concert hall — something that we’ve seen quite a bit of in Toronto at the Sony Centre, with the help of packaged American shows accompanied by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra.
Reineke and the Toronto Symphony are exploring the film angle in May, with a screening of West Side Story at Roy Thomson Hall. The voices and dialogue are the 1961 originals, but all the music will come live from the stage.
For this sort of show, the conductor works with the score as well as a video monitor that provides him with detailed cues on the podium. “It’s literally a lot of practice, a lot of intuition,” says Reineke. “You have to know the score down pat as a conductor – and even then, you still have to lead that many people to have them right where they need to be.”
The better a conductor knows a score, the more he or she can do with it. Reineke says this allows him to take certain liberties, even within the split-second timing demanded by the movie projection.
“It’s not that different from conducting a ballet or an opera,” the conductor notes. “In other ways, it’s more challenging, because you don’t have that live interaction. But it’s the same level of technique and concentration as at the opera or ballet.”
Reineke explains that West Side Story, a relatively modern movie, is much easier to accompany than The Wizard of Oz, which is filled with rough editing cuts. “Suddenly you get to a place and there is a sixteenth note missing, or there are sudden jumps in the score,” says the Cincinnati native. “I figure if you can get through The Wizard of Oz, you can get through just about anything.”
Throughout our conversation, Reineke returns several times to the one clear thing that binds an audience to the artists on stage: the musical power that an orchestra can unleash. He says that all of his programming decisions are informed by a desire to put this music front and centre rather than hiding it behind gimmicks.
“I don’t want to distract from the majesty of 80 musicians playing live on the stage,” he says.
“I’ve played rehearsals where we’ve invited donors to sit with the orchestra on stage, and they are always blown away by the power of the music around them,” Reinecke smiles.
The conductor, who is also music director of the New York Pops and principal pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., is looking at ways to present exciting new pops programming among all three orchestras.
Although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra won’t unveil its 2013-14 season for a few more months, Reinecke lets slip that one of next season’s programmes will feature Family Guy creator and host of the next Oscars, Seth MacFarlane.
“He always wanted to be a singer; that was his first love,” says Reineke, who adds that MacFarlane is releasing a Christmas-themed album this fall.
Another future collaboration involves Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies, the New York City-based maestro reveals.
In Washington, he and the orchestra are planning performances in alternate venues, such as the city’s old railway station, long ago converted to other uses. This isn’t likely to happen in Toronto anytime soon, but Reinecke hopes that putting a soon-to-be-familiar face on the podium at pops conerts will help build new bonds and strengthen old ones.
“I want to break down those barriers,” between pops and younger audiences, Reineke insists.
For details on this weeks pops programme, click here.
Here is a little portrait the National Symphony prepared of Steven Reinecke when he became their principal pops conductor last season: