Ravinia Music Festival

It’s pops night, which means fun is on the menu! Even the word itself conjures up blissful thoughts of relaxed musical evenings with friends and lots of irrepressible toe-tapping.

But what exactly, one might ask, will we be listening to? That’s a complicated question. Pops concerts became a feature in American musical life in the 1880s, primarily with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Music Hall Promenade Concerts. Audiences could enjoy a little nibble, a sip of something, and let their hair down a bit as they listened to programs of catchy, accessible tunes, usually with a Viennese flair. Think waltzes by the Strauss named Johann. Add a mazurka if you like. Pops was typified through the presence of conductor Arthur Fiedler, whose tenure at the Boston Pops Orchestra spanned almost half a century from 1930 to 1979. Fiedler’s programming may seem rather quaint to modern listeners: An evening of light classical favorites would generally conclude with a “novelty” number—a medley from a popular film perhaps, or a few holiday favorites.

The Fiedler formula paled with time. Audiences change, and orchestras can be forgiven for a collective eye roll at the thought of playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” one more time, let alone “The Syncopated Clock” [by Leroy Anderson, who penned another irrepressible tune, “Sleigh Ride”]. And more than one conductor has observed that in programs of familiar classical lollypops, orchestras basically play themselves. Change was in the air. Composer John Williams took over the Boston Pops in 1980 and film music exploded in popularity. In Cincinnati, the great “Prince of Pops” Erich Kunzel boldly pushed the boundaries of pops programming with his groundbreaking collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.

The undisputed king of the genre today is the ebullient, Ohio-born conductor and composer Steven Reineke, who will lead his program Broadway Today at Ravinia on July 27. A delightful fellow with an enthusiasm that is positively infectious, Reineke is the Music Director of the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall and is principal pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, as well as the Houston and Toronto Symphonies. A protégé of Kunzel himself, he formerly served as Associate Conductor of the Cincinnati Pops as well as the orchestra’s primary arranger. Reineke credits his destiny to his father, who would sing him to sleep as a child with the popular tunes of the day. “I was drawn to music for the masses,” Reineke explains, “music that people could sing along to. It wasn’t highfalutin stuff, which I think had some influence when I became a classical musician.” Reineke formally studied trumpet, but his unusual musical acumen really displayed itself when he would come home from movies and play through their scores from memory on the piano. “I just figured them out,” he laughs, “I thought everybody did that.” After college he came to Kunzel’s attention and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, what is pops? And what is its purpose? “It’s getting trickier to give it a strict definition,” Reineke observes. “I’m not the biggest fan of the term pops. It’s pretty old school. The lines are getting more blurred as well, as some creative music directors on the so-called classical side are venturing more into collaborations with popular artists that are sometimes outside the classical realm, and vice versa. Pops obviously came originally as a diminutive of popular, so popular music. I guess that’s still right in a way to delineate it from classical literature. But on the pops side, the sky is the limit. We have the ability to perform any kind of music that we can make work within an orchestral setting, but it’s often collaborative, based on working with artists in different genres. We can keep the great American songbook alive, we do Nelson Riddle, big band, the Broadway canon, jazz, bluegrass, film music, light classics. We’ve branched into hip-hop and rap. Rock and roll music; we can easily put an orchestra with Billy Joel, or Elton John, or Sting, or any of these people and it works.

Though a “pops” concert of Broadway songs leaves out the full costumes and choreographed action of a fully staged musical, such as the production of Annie Get Your Gun at Ravinia in 2010 (above), the nonstop stream of popular songs—whether singularly focused like a Rodgers and Hammerstein night or devoted to an era or idea like Steven Reineke’s Broadway Today —has been a favorite of orchestra audiences for decades.

“I am done with the days of the orchestra being a backup band that doesn’t even have to be there, I just don’t like that at all. My collaborations are truly a partnership.”
“It’s important to preserve that wonderful side of music that’s been around for a good 400 years, [while recognizing that it’s mostly the writings of] a bunch of old white guys. But I think that orchestras are service organizations as well. We are not just museums or keepers of artifacts, we are a service to our community, and are enlightening them and serving all parts of that community, not just the stereotypical classical music lover. This means reaching out to many different demographics, all the types of people that live within our communities. I want the orchestra to be welcoming to them. And the best way to do that is through programming that entices them to come hear the orchestra perform. So that’s where the pops side of things can really expand the reach of an orchestra. In my last 10 years I’ve re-imagined how I think about it, and I think, What is the next part of the community that we are leaving out? That does not mean that I don’t do ‘The Best of Rodgers and Hammerstein.’ I will never abandon things like that or light classical concerts; there is so much repertoire out there that’s very famous and doesn’t get done all the time. It’s about expanding the types of offerings we can do.

“When I do a collaboration with some group, I make sure it’s a true collaboration,” Reineke insists, “I am done with the days of the orchestra being a backup band that doesn’t even have to be there, I just don’t like that at all. My collaborations are truly a partnership.” As a composer himself, he also deplores a regrettable tendency towards mediocre arrangements that has plagued some pops outings in the past, insisting that the brilliance of the orchestra be respected. “I always make sure the quality we are putting on the stands is as excellent as they are. You just can’t put junk up there.”

Reineke’s eclecticism is gloriously displayed in Broadway Today. “I do a lot of golden age of Broadway programs,” he explains, “Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe. I wanted to do more contemporary stuff, Broadway of the last 30 years or so. There are a lot of musicals from the last 10 years on here; a lot of these shows are still running or were recently, but more contemporary—Newsies, The Book of Mormon, The Bridges of Madison County, Dear Evan Hansen, Waitress. Company is back on Broadway! Matt Doyle, who’s coming to sing at Ravinia, is in [the new revival of] Company. It’s a gender-swapping role, he plays the character that used to be ‘Amy,’ and is now ‘Jamie,’ who sings ‘Getting Married Today.’ We thought about putting that in this show, but ended up giving him [the traditional male showpiece] ‘Being Alive.’ The other thing I do in this program is an orchestral feature where we focus on the top five longest running Broadway musicals of all time. Wicked just became the fifth longest. It was Les Misérables last time I did this, so I had to switch out Les Misérables for a Wicked thing. Oh, man!

For six months in 2017 Betsy Wolfe took the lead role in Waitress on Broadway; at Ravinia she brings “She Used to Be Mine“ from the show alongside songs from the Stephen Schwartz musicals Wicked and The Baker’s Wife as well as a tune from The Last Five Years , which originated at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001.
For six months in 2017 Betsy Wolfe took the lead role in Waitress on Broadway; at Ravinia she brings “She Used to Be Mine“ from the show alongside songs from the Stephen Schwartz musicals Wicked and The Baker’s Wife as well as a tune from The Last Five Years, which originated at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001.

In addition to the culminating song of Sondheim’s Company , whose Broadway revival cast he joins this winter, Matt Doyle brings songs from recent critical and audience favorites Dear Evan Hansen and The Book of Mormon , which he starred in throughout 2013. Doyle and Wolfe also duet on songs from Little Shop of Horrors , Once , and more.

“My joy comes from connecting to people. Music is a gift. Music is meant to be given away. You’re gifting this to the people that are coming to listen. To create that magic, to make music together and share that with the audience and have their enthusiasm and excitement shared back with you—it becomes this symbiotic relationship. When we get that electricity going between the orchestra and an audience, there’s nothing like it. My favorite two hours of any day is when I can be onstage performing a concert in front of a live audience. It is my most joyful time ever. So obviously I was devastated a year ago. Art is meant to be shared communally. If you don’t have anybody to listen to it, read it, or look at it, who does it reach?”

So, what would Reineke envision his legacy to be? “That’s a very tough question!” he replies with a big laugh. “That’s starting to think about mortality, which I tend to not think about much. But I would like to be remembered for honest joy and unfiltered celebration of music, and the sharing of the live experience of that. To know that I’ve touched somebody through what I do as a vocation is probably the biggest thing.”

Right now, he’s too busy living in the present, anticipating Broadway Today for Ravinia. “I just want to celebrate coming back together again. This will be the largest ensemble I’ll have had onstage in a year and a half. This is a huge way to celebrate Broadway’s reopening—and for us in Chicago to celebrate getting back together as a community and sharing music as a people.” 

Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.

MARK THOMAS KETTERSON, Ravinia Backstage Blog
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