We sat down with Pasadena POPS Principal Conductor Michael Feinstein and Pasadena Symphony and POPS Chief Executive Officer Lora Unger to see what to expect for the highly anticipated 2018 POPS summer season at the Arboretum.
By: Sara Smola
Welcome back for another summer of conducting the POPS, how does it feel to be back?
FEINSTEIN: It feels great. It’s a growing experience for me and one of tremendous gratitude because I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do what I’m doing.
You made your conducting debut back in June 2013, has anything about the experience changed between then and now?
FEINSTEIN: It’s like getting to know friends or dating someone. You go on your first date, then decide you like each other then you continue to see each other. In the case of this orchestra, it’s a very large dating pool but the experience has been one of not only connecting on a musical level but on a personal level and learning about people’s passions for music.
How have the musicians received Michael and how has that relationship evolved over the past years?
UNGER: What Michael has done is sincerely unprecedented in the orchestra industry in that we have a group of not only the finest musicians in Los Angeles but the entire country. They’re such high quality, high performing studio artists and they’re a tough crowd. Michael, coming to the POPS, new to conducting, I think any normal person would find that tremendously intimidating. Most other artists would not be able to extend the right arm of partnership in getting the musicians partnership, because it’s an unwieldy animal to get 65-70 musicians to follow you when you’ve had 30 years of conducting experience, let alone somebody that is coming in from the beginning. One of the things that Michael did that was absolutely so magical and unique among conductors is that he came to the podium with a sense of humility but at the same time, the musicians— every one of them—knew him, knows him, has known him, and has followed his career so they all had respected him as an artist in his own right and because of that combination of Michael’s artistic integrity, his sincerity and humility, he won them over immediately.
Do you feel that being a musician first has helped you undertake the role of conductor?
FEINSTEIN: Conducting is a very specific art and one can learn technically how to conduct yet the essence of it cannot be taught, it has to be experienced. My approach to music is no different working with an orchestra from being a solo artist or standing in front of an orchestra singing, in that one has to think about what we want the music to sound like, how it is expressed and understanding the technical aspects of how to make it happen but then letting go so the interpretive magical part can manifest, because it is that other part that makes it special. These orchestrations that I play are frequently vintage arrangements, sometimes they’ve never been played publicly, sometimes they haven’t been heard in 60-70 years and they have a certain sense of style that is, in many instances, lost. There are interpretive aspects of classic music that are not notated on the paper. They have to do with how the strings are bowed or how a note is played by the trumpet that’s short, there are all these traditions that are not notated and so it is an exploration for all of us as we approach this music again to rediscover that style and to bring through for a contemporary audience.
What does the 2018 POPS have in store for us?
FEINSTEIN: Every show always has a surprise or surprises in it. For the first concert, I hope to play a vintage orchestration of the song that André Previn and Dory Previn, his then wife, wrote for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It was never used in the film; their score was thrown out. It’s a glorious song and I found the original orchestration for the demo. It was the most expensive demo ever made in Hollywood, for the score that was thrown away. I want to do a premiere of this Previn song. So it’s finding things like that, that are new and fresh, and this is just a gorgeous song that I know people will respond to and get excited about. To be able to find something like that, it’s exciting because people know they’re hearing something that is never been heard before, secondly, it’s a great piece of music, and third, it’s going to be played as good as it can sound. That is an exhilarating experience for all of us.
How has Michael’s role as conductor benefited the POPS?
UNGER: Michael has a gift of presenting music that you’ve never heard before but he presents it in a way that makes it completely immediately accessible and relevant. In the classical world, sometimes it is challenging to bring in new music. People tend to be very comfortable sticking with what they know, and what pieces they know. What’s really magical about Michael—and the POPS and our vision—is that all of our customers know that every concert they come to [they will listen to] music that they know, but a lot of music that they don’t know and they can’t get enough of it. They love it. The trust Michael has built with the audience is stupendous. It’s a testament to our subscriber base. Our subscriber base has essentially doubled under Michael’s leadership.
The 2017 season saw the likes of both Broadway legends and new faces. Any famous faces to grace the stage in 2018? And, given Michael’s aptitude for discovering new talent, are there any up and coming names to watch out for?
FEINSTEIN: Finn [Sagal] is still in high school. He is a young, charismatic, talented man, as in Brighton [Thomas], who also is in high school. They both have a connection with the music. They love contemporary music, some of which alludes me. You know, some of the stuff they like, it’s like another language that I don’t necessarily understand. But they also have a connection to the classic song and classic music. These two young people are worthy of being showcased and in both instances, I believe, it will be the first time with a symphony. I’m excited about that for them.
UNGER: We have a wildly diverse range of guest artists. We have the young artists that Michael is bringing along, we have Christine Ebersole coming. We have other stars from television shows. We have amazing cabaret stars; we have Liz Callaway, a wonderful Broadway artist, she’s also a Disney singer as well. And so it’s a treat every single concert because we’re really careful to have different experiences for the audience.
Held at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, how does the venue impact the concert experience?
FEINSTEIN: It has a casual atmosphere that I appreciate because people seem so relaxed and happy to be there. I see little kids running around and I see a lot of activity, as if people having a day in the park.
UNGER: The Arboretum is such a special space. It is ideal and perfect for a summer outdoor concert series. What sets us apart is that it’s a boutique Hollywood Bowl experience. Acoustically, it’s wonderful. We have all of the same high production value with added convenience and intimacy. It is something that people are really responding to. We have a five-concert series with the POPS. We also have a special added concert that we present in partnership with [LA County Supervisor] Kathryn Barger. It’s a county show with her support. This year we’re presenting Trace Adkins who’s a country music star.
How does Pasadena Symphony and POPS fit into the Pasadena community?
UNGER: We are in our 90th year which is amazing. The Symphony acquired the Pasadena POPS in 2008, and then evolved into bringing on Marvin Hamlisch and now of course Michael Feinstein. We really have a 90-year-old organization that for a good 80 or 75 years was just an indoor concert series at the Civic Auditorium and now it’s a year-round orchestra. We have found this special purpose and niche of having this very legitimate pops concert experience. In fact, the word “pops” is a little bit of an enigma around the country, ‘What is pops?’ I would say the Pasadena POPS is actually the definitive experience of what a pops orchestra should be, which is celebrating and curating the music of this nation. The Great American Songbook is what America has offered the world in terms of a fine art form. And a symphony orchestra’s responsibility, as an artistic institution and as a nonprofit, is to serve that mission and I think the Pasadena POPS is leading the way.