My Secret Joy of Pops Concerts

When orchestral musicians list the things that they typically get excited about, pops concerts usually don’t make the cut. The rehearsal time gets cut down, which means that there’s less polishing of the music. The musicians focus less, since the music is generally easy and not terribly engaging, and substitute musicians frequently play on pops concerts, because if there’s more money and more interesting music to be made elsewhere, the regulars generally prefer those engagements.

I often find myself enjoying pops concerts regardless, and last week I had the joy of playing just such an engagement. I played a show at the Oneonta Theater called “Groovin’ to the 60s,” featuring Gary Puckett and the Buckinghams, and this show had all the trappings of a typical pops show. There was only one rehearsal with the full orchestra, which was a mix of local professionals and Hartwick College students, and despite the high musical quality of arranger Mariano Longo’s arrangements, the orchestra was still essentially backstopping the band (this was true for the strings at least. Brass players always make out well in these kinds of shows).

The Buckingham’s first number one single, “Kind of a Drag,” made the charts in 1967. These were some very mature singers here. A voice teacher once told me that the human voice doesn’t reach full maturity until age 35. It keeps growing, and expanding, and reinventing itself that whole time, and of course even then, it doesn’t stop changing. It was a real pleasure to hear and accompany such mature, well developed voices that were really comfortable in their own skins. Don’t get me wrong now – I’m not going on a rant about how “kids these days don’t know how to sing.” No matter how skilled the singer, it simply takes time for the voice to mature, and really develop color and personality. For as great a singer as, say, Sara Bareilles is, imagine how incredible her voice will sound in another 15-20 years! Because of the age of their target audiences, orchestras frequently target singers in this age range for their pops shows, and this is something that I really look forward to in pops shows.

As befits their age and experience, these artists really display a genuine sense of grace and appreciation for life. There was something in their voices, and the way they interacted with each other that told you that when they said to the audience how grateful they were for their careers, and how much they owed their audiences, they really meant it. No empty words here to begin bantering with the audience, this was just a bunch of friends who, by all appearances, appeared to be thanking their lucky stars that they still get to do this thing we call music for a living over forty years later. In a lot of ways, these pops shows will never hold a candle to playing the great works of Mahler, Bartok, and Brahms, but for me, the great symphonic repertoire will also never compare to the experiences that these pops shows offer.


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