There’s a lot at stake with the failure of the Philly Pops beyond the silencing of Sondheim, rock nostalgia acts, soul and patriotic tunes.
This is Philadelphia’s first major COVID-related arts death, and the casualty should set off alarms. Striking 40 events from the city’s annual concert calendar means fewer listeners coming downtown filling sidewalks and restaurants. The disappearance of the Pops threatens the high-quality pipeline of freelance Musicians the area has built over decades.
It should also raise questions about funding, hiring and confidence in cultural institutions like the Pops. The recently approved $21 million city allocation for arts groups is a good lifeline, but it’s not the ongoing, dedicated funding source needed to sustain one of the region’s major quality-of-life assets.
There’s a potential upside here: the chance to change a system of recruiting, screening and auditioning players that has excluded Black Musicians from the Pops and other ensembles all these years.
And then there’s the intangible but quite real damage the Pops’s death could do to confidence in the arts sector. The Philadelphia Orchestra had tried for decades to build a new concert hall and failed, creating a perception of what was and was not possible for the arts scene here. But when the project was transformed into Kimmel Center and opened in 2001, it didn’t just represent an expansion of the arts in the city. It kicked off a run of ambition that has continued for two decades.
The Demise of the Pops should not be allowed to define a new era of diminished dreaming. A night with Peter Nero (and what the Pops has become in the decade since the pianist-conductor’s departure) might not have always been your thing. But it was for hundreds of thousands of others over the years. Without a pops orchestra, the city would be less vital and indisputably incomplete. It’s up to the collective us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
As the Pops Winds down, here’s what the arts community and a successor organization should consider.
“These organizations have been holding on by their fingernails for a long, long time,” said Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance president and CEO Patricia Wilson Aden, of area arts groups since the pandemic. The recent round of city money may help some to hold on longer. But there’s no guarantee audiences will be back in the same numbers, and the Philly Pops may not be the last group to fold.
Quantity attracts quality. When there’s enough work, Musicians graduating from Temple University, the Curtis Institute and other schools are more likely to stay in the area. The Pops’ going away takes a big chunk out of the job market, and Opera Philadelphia has already reduced the number of works requiring a full orchestra. To maintain the quality of Talent in the city, music groups and philanthropies will need to figure out how to support the Talent with enough work.
While it’s possible that the Musicians of the Pops could restructure as a self-governing orchestra, it’s more likely that the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. could start a Pops series in the fall. This might help answer the question of how the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, also facing slackening demand for tickets, will continue to keep its Musicians occupied 52 weeks a year (per the collective bargaining agreement).
How it would be structured is the big question. Would the ensemble be made of Philadelphia Orchestra members, current Pops regulars, or a mix? What repertoire would they perform? Would Philadelphia Orchestra Musicians turn up their noses at playing music of the Hooters and American Bandstand?
Would they be good at it? The sound of a trumpet player in Sinatra couldn’t be more different than the sound you want in Brahms. It will take a deft hand to weave together the right musical mix.
Currently, the Philadelphia Orchestra has four Black members (including one librarian and one stagehand), and among the Pops’ instrumentalist in the main ensemble, there is one. The creation of a new recruitment and audition process could make ensembles more representative of the city. The substitute roster is critical. Giving freelance players a chance to sit side-by-side with veteran members gives them important Insider information about how the ensemble operates and what sound and style succeed. Players with this experience are more likely to win auditions for permanent spots.
If there’s an element to the Pops experience that has powered it over the years, it’s emotion. For many listeners, a rock show or Christmas Spectacular sparks the feeling of an earlier, happy time in life. Humor and fun are often in the mix. The Philly Pops has also been there at important Civic moments, like Independence Day Celebrations on the Mall. The Pops have understood what it means to be a good citizen, and that counts for a lot these days.
Or at least, send it to semi-retirement. For many Musicians and others in the sector, the term means “less than,” as in less than “real” Classical music. That class division has eroded. Since the word “pops” refers to so many genres — everything from Broadway to rock — that it has become meaningless. Let’s find a better, more specific way to describe this music and to market it.
See above. When the seriously inspired conductor Tugan Sokhiev led the Philadelphia Orchestra a few weeks ago, he opened his program with Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor, which many first heard on an album of light classics put out by the all-time king of pops, Andre Kostelanetz. But Sokhiev did something very few conductors know how to do: in the opening he drew a lusciously deep, rich well of sound from the orchestra’s strings — the Philadelphia Sound. In other words, sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. And let’s not forget that the Philadelphia Orchestra has already collaborated with singers like Jill Scott and Audra McDonald. Pop artists, yes, and with this Orchestra they created incredible musical experiences.
There will be pressure to look back through the books of the Philly Pops to figure out which concerts sold and which didn’t, and use that data to inform programming. The return of some kind of pops holiday program next season has already been announced. But audiences don’t know what they don’t know. That’s what artists and artistic administrators are for — to see what soloists and repertoire are out there nationally and decide whether they translate here. Who ends up on the podium of a successor organization is key. Philadelphia likes a celebrity. Peter Nero was that, but he also lived here and had a feel for what was authentically Philly.
So, what to call a new ensemble? Meet you at the Jawnharmonic?