On Pops, part 1.


I have been wanting to write this post for almost a week but it has required a lot of passive thinking-about, hence the lack of substantive posts in the meantime…
Two pops shows in two weeks has got me thinking about that particular series, part of virtually every not-big-5 orchestra’s season. Unlike the main series (often referred to as “Masterworks” or some other lofty catchword) a pops series can be harder to define. A cursive exploration of various orchestras’ pops series, however, reveals some common themes.

So here are your basic ingredients for your typical pops stew:

  • ‘Traditional’ (big band/New Orleans) jazz group
  • Broadway/show-tunes
  • A crooner or lounge singer, aka Traditional Pop (Sinatra/Garland type stuff)
  • Film and Television music
  • Some sort of band (amplified) with arrangements for a backing orchestra (vexingly, amplified.) This can include original material or a cover band.

At least one of those kind of acts falls into virtually 100% of all orchestral pops series in North America. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that almost none of these ideas when put into practise, aligns with my personal taste as a (relatively) young person, or as a professional classical musician. They do however, sell tickets, (and as I found out recently, are easy to sell to sponsors as well) making arguing against them kind of difficult, particularly with the management who books them.

Today though, I will take the idealistic angle, and discuss why I feel some of these kinds of acts relate to the artistic goals of the modern orchestra.

First, the jazz: Jazz certainly doesn’t need an orchestra behind it to paint itself as a legitimate art form. Contemporary jazz is more challenging than contemporary classical music. What we have with these kind of pops shows is often a good band dumbing down so that the orchestra can play along… more concisely; swinging violas. All in all though, hardly an offender. Unlike, however, an orchestra alone playing the ubiquitous Benny Goodman Medley, which I feel is a sad experience for all involved. Quality arrangements are the key here.

Broadway: Except for the fact that my own feelings about show-tunes range from annoyance to deep, powerful hate, I have a hard time arguing against the merit of these kind of shows. Orchestras are a part of Broadway, and as an art form Broadway is actually very vital and relevant. I am willing to look past my personal feelings on this one as well. It would be better if orchestras were able to delve into some of the current hits without bankrupting themselves though.

Traditional Pop: This is a genre where there was a natural, genuine intersection of orchestras and popular music. It’s somewhat of a tradition, and one there room in my own elitist soul to accept. I only wonder how much longer orchestras can rely on the audiences to keep coming back for these shows before, you know, they die.

Film and Television music: One of the easiest kind of concerts to program is most often the kind that most suffers from laziness on the part of the person doing the programming. I have often felt sorry for the audience who most likely came hoping to hear something from their favourite semi-recent, or childhood film, only to have some random obscura from the 1976 version of King Kong thrown their way because it was practically free to rent.

Boo to this I say. Pops concerts are often cited as “audience builders.” If we’re hoping to get these people to come back and hear Mahler we can’t treat them like we think they’re stupid enough to swallow any tripe we throw their way. Pandering, laze, and condescension are the deadliest of sins when it come to the audience. The laziness in which pops programs are booked, presented and programmed are my biggest problem. Orchestras (as a specious entity made up of management and musicians) cannot treat the audience like they’re stupid enough not to notice the lack of effort. A pops show may have to be under-prepared to fit into a busy schedule, there’s usually no avoiding that, but why would an orchestra neophyte assume we put any more effort into the Brahms symphony being performed next week than the half-assed pops show he just paid 50 bucks to see. You can’t polish a turd and you can’t “build audiences” with one either.


The last item on my list is one that I have most wanted to discuss and for which I have particularly strong feelings. Please watch out for a follow up post just discussing that in the next couple days.


3 responses to “On Pops, part 1.

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. Thanks

  2. The orchestra I was in from 1975 until it folded in 2002 or so did pops concerts for a time. While they brought in an audience, they wound up costing MUCH more than anything else (aside from when we’d bring in Yo-Yo Ma or someone like that) and were finally nixed. I found them, for the most part, embarrassing and of low quality. I was glad to see most of them go, although I confess some were a real blast. It all depended upon the “star”.

  3. Well said!

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