Symphonic pops concerts are moneymakers for the Florida Orchestra, and the music can be terrific, but it all depends on what is on the stands.
"One of the key things in pops is the quality of the arrangements, where the orchestra really does perform, and the strings, instead of playing a bunch of goose eggs, are really playing notes," said Leonard Stone, executive director of the orchestra.
Anyone who has been to more than a few pops concerts can recall a syrupy performance in which a singing star did his or her thing to the proverbial "bed of strings," little more than page after page of whole notes for accompaniment.
Typically, pops arrangements are provided by the featured performer. Nobody knows about their varied quality better than Ella Fredrickson, the orchestra's principal librarian.
"Frankly, a lot of shows that come through, their charts stink," Fredrickson said.
This week, the orchestra has a pair of pops programs. Wednesday, Olivia Newton-John sings Physical, Have You Never Been Mellow and her other hits. Friday through Nov. 23, Doc Severinsen leads an Italian-themed program, featuring a tenor and an accordionist.
Severinsen, the former Tonight show trumpeter, is known on the symphony circuit not only for his loud wardrobe but also for his well-crafted arrangements. "Doc is a piece of cake," Fredrickson said. "His charts are always incredible."
Newton-John could be another matter. A week before the concert, Fredrickson had yet to see the Grease star's orchestra arrangements.
"Sometimes it's really difficult when we get charts in that are typically jazz charts or show charts," she said. "There'll be things like the key signature appearing only once at the top of the chart and not through all the rest of the way. Symphony players have to adjust to that, and it's hard."
The gold standard for pops arrangements was set by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Fielder's brilliant arrangers, including Leroy Anderson, Gordon Jenkins and Richard Hayman, knew how to adapt the vocabulary of pops music for an institution designed to play Beethoven, Berlioz and Bruckner. The tradition of excellence continued under Fiedler's successors, John Williams and Keith Lockhart.
Hayman's arrangements will be played when he is a guest conductor in May. They have also been used by the orchestra in its annual New Year's Eve gala. Another veteran who comes with first-class arrangements is Skitch Henderson, the former pops music director who will be on the podium for a holiday program in December.
Henderson, Hayman, Severinsen and other perennial pops meisters such as Marvin Hamlisch make frequent guest appearances with the orchestra. But there hasn't been a pops director since Henderson stepped down three years ago.
Stone said hiring a pops director was not a priority while the orchestra searched for a music director and associate conductor, positions assumed this season by Stefan Sanderling and Susan Haig, respectively.
One possible candidate for the post is Richard Kaufman, a guest conductor this season and next season. Kaufman is principal pops conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Orange County, Calif. It's not uncommon for pops conductors to lead several orchestras.
Kaufman is "somebody who we are looking at to see whether or not the connect between orchestra and conductor and conductor and audience is so real that it merits a formalized situation," Stone said.
Pops are important to the orchestra's budget. Last season, programs with Hamlisch and pianist Roger Williams were boffo at the box office, both bringing in $145,000 for three concerts. The orchestra's top draw was a masterworks program featuring Jon Kimura Parker in Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto; those concerts had ticket sales of $147,000.
Big-name pops headliners such as Newton-John or K.D. Lang, who appears with the orchestra in May, command fees as much as $50,000 or more. But from a time-management standpoint, they can be a relative bargain if sales are strong.
"Pops generally are a better economic bang for the buck," Stone said. "Historically, it takes four preparation services for masterworks, and most pops can now be pulled off with one rehearsal. So in terms of the bottom line, even though the artists are more expensive on average, the margin is better on pops."
But as marketing director Jan Hickin warns, an expensive pop act comes with a risk to the orchestra. "You're either a raving hit or a miserable loser," she said. "It's a real up and down game, which is why I love the masterworks. It's a much steadier, more reliable audience."
Then there's the issue of pops programming. It can be awfully old-fashioned.
"Nostalgia plays a big role in the pops audience," Stone said. "Historically speaking - I want to be very careful with my choice of words here - the pops audience is the most mature audience of the symphony families. And this is throughout North America."
Symphonic pops staples haven't changed much since Fiedler's heyday: Broadway show tunes, movie music, holiday fare. Celtic programs, inspired by the success of Riverdance, have been hot lately.
"You put Rodgers and Hammerstein on the stage, and you can pack them in," Hickin said. "And Gershwin; audiences love Gershwin."
In October, Kaufman conducted a Gershwin program, featuring a young baritone, Nmon Ford, in scenes from Porgy and Bess. "Everybody is still raving about that voice," Stone said. "You can use very talented but relatively unknown personalities in the pops if you marry them to well-known programming."
Of course, a Rodgers or Gershwin score can be as musically interesting as a Strauss waltz or Rossini overture. The same can't necessarily be said of scores by that latter-day Broadway titan, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
"We always get the oversaturation of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The orchestra hates it; the audience loves it," Fredrickson said.
There is some innovation on the orchestra pops scene today. The Symphonic Pops Consortium, composed of the Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, National and Seattle symphony orchestras, has produced a series of well-conceived programs on traditional themes, such as "Pops Go British" and "Broadway Divas."
Among newer pop acts in the orchestra market, Fredrickson touts Pink Martini, a 10-piece group from Portland, Ore., which plays lounge music. Minneapolis-based Five By Design has received raves for its "Club Swing" and "Radio Days" programs.
Fredrickson was closely involved in the orchestra's successful programs of Frank Zappa music, and she can imagine other pairings with rock.
"I would love to see us do Radiohead," she said, referring to the brainy British band. "There's a group whose music would really work for an orchestra."
Stone, for his part, is skeptical about the possibilities of pops drawing a significant youth audience to the orchestra. And he worries about alienating the longtime pops audience.
"In my eyes, it's about as likely as making rap appeal to senior citizens," he said. "I just don't see it happening. The thing about the pops audience is that they're very, very loyal. It's their evening out, and they love it."
"Sound bleed' complaints
There was a battle of the bands last Monday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Upstairs in the Margaret Heye Great Room, principals from the Florida Orchestra performed a Schubert quintet, Morton Gould's Benny's Gig and other chamber music. At the same time, in the main auditorium, Lynyrd Skynyrd played Free Bird. The rockers won, their pounding bass overwhelming the orchestra players, much to the annoyance of people in the crowd of 239 who called me to complain the next morning.
"Yes, there was sound bleed," said Lex Poppens, the hall's director of marketing and communications. "I do know it was distracting. We're still taking the building on a test drive, working out the bugs."
Ruth Eckerd Hall reopened this month after a five-month renovation, and any acoustical seal between the auditorium and the Heye is obviously still a work in progress. Poppens said the hall had rescheduled the rockers from another date. They weren't on the Monday schedule when the orchestra booked the Heye.
The Florida Orchestra plays a pair of pops programs this week. Olivia Newton-John sings at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa. $25-$65. Trumpeter Doc Severinsen leads an Italian-themed program at 8 p.m. Friday at TBPAC, 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. $21-$45. 813 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; www.floridaorchestra.org