By Norm Freeman on May 27, 2018 at 10:03 AM in The News

November 17, 2011

By Will Friedwald, The Wall Street Journal

"I'll be honest with you, I never really liked the term 'pops,'" said Steven Reineke, who has served as conductor and artistic director of the New York Pops for the last three years. "It's just the diminutive for 'popular music,' and that, of course, is very subjective. The phrase had a certain meaning and connotation in a different generation. But now, as we bring younger people into the concert hall, a lot of people—who never grew up with [longtime Boston Pops conductor] Arthur Fiedler—don't really know what it means."

A Pops orchestra could be described as the love child of a traditional classical symphony and a 1940s-style big dance band: A large string section predominates, but the group is driven by a jazz-style rhythm section playing (as best it can) in 4/4 swingtime, punctuated by jazz instrumental soloists. The songs are plucked mostly from Broadway shows and what is known as the Great American Songbook. A Pops orchestra will also often back vocalists.

The New York Pops—with 77 members, the largest independent Pops orchestra in America—will be doing all that and more Friday at Carnegie Hall in "Music of the Mad Men Era," a program of '50s and '60s hits like "Feeling Good," "Luck Be a Lady" and "Sway," starring vocalist Cheyenne Jackson.

These were some of the preeminent pop songs of their era, but, as Mr. Reineke noted, the evolving popular landscape has shifted many of them to the jazz shelf. Still, he said of the orchestra, "I'm not about to suggest a name change—it's a well-known brand, and, besides, I haven't been able to come up with anything else to call it that really symbolizes what we do. The Boston Pops was the first to use that term; that's where it all started."

The Boston Pops, still the flagship orchestra of the Pops world, was founded in 1885—nearly a century before the New York Pops—as the more user-friendly little brother of the Boston Symphony. Pops-style music, which includes the so-called "light classics" and largeformat arrangements of superior popular songs, was widely played in the 1920s and '30s by touring bands like that of Paul Whiteman, as well as by radio conductors like Andre Kostelanetz. After the war, with the decline of the big bands, those ideals gradually coalesced in the Pops orchestra format. The original Boston Pops itself became more of an international institution in the television era thanks to Arthur Fiedler, its ambitious, colorful conductor.

After Fiedler's death in 1979, his successor, Hollywood maestro John Williams, brought more of a film-score identification to Pops bands. By then, both the Cincinnati Pops, under Erich Kunzel, and the New York Pops, founded in 1983 by longtime "Tonight Show" conductor Skitch Henderson, were key players on the scene. Eventually, Kunzel trained the successors for both Henderson and Mr. Williams: Keith Lockhart, the current conductor of the Boston Pops, and Mr. Reineke, a classically trained trumpeter who served for 15 years as the Cincinnati's second in command before taking over the New York Pops in 2009.

His band boasts a venerable history—28 seasons and some 245 separate concert programs—but Mr. Reineke, who is 41, is concerned about the future of the organization. "We talk a lot about the Great American Songbook," he said over the phone from his West Side apartment. "But I think that the songbook is constantly evolving—it's not just Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Why not include the likes of Paul Simon, Carole King and James Taylor? These people are constantly contributing to the songbook. I don't take that lightly, and I believe that something has to stand the test of time for its quality to become clear."

He added that, as an illustration of the fluidity of the concept, the Pops orchestra will include a song by Amy Winehouse, who died in July at 27, during Friday's concert.

In addition to expanding the programming, Mr. Reineke is working on ways to bring the orchestra to audiences beyond Carnegie, in-cluding both a national tour and the outer boroughs. "I would love to play in places like Jones Beach and the Great Lawn in Central Park" he said. "The problem is that there's no bandstand there. One of the few things that New York lacks is a major outdoor venue like the Hollywood Bowl."

As the orchestra nears its 30th year, Mr. Reineke, whose contract was recently extended through the 2015-16 season, stressed that "there isn't that much difference between the Pops and a traditional symphony orchestra. We can play Beethoven or we can play the Beatles—and we try to do both equally well."