A Gershwin tune. A Berlin ballad. The latest cinematic score from Hollywood. Jazz standards given a symphonic spin. A serious piece by Marc Blitzstein. And perhaps, as Stephen Sondheim would say, "a piece of Mahler's." The New York Pops embraces American popular music in nearly all its diversity‹the hit songs, the catchy numbers from Broadway's heyday, the holiday carols everyone knows, the patriotic anthems that can still stir the heart, the distinctively American works of Bernstein, Copland, and Ellington, as well as lighter orchestral fare by such heavyweights as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
When Skitch Henderson founded the Pops in 1983, the aim was to broaden awareness and enjoyment of America's rich musical heritage, and it is a mission he and the Pops have accomplished with their own distinctive style ever since, logging nearly 200 performances at Carnegie Hall as well as international tours, educational programs for New York City schools, free concerts for New Yorkers of every stripe, and summertime appearances in the city's parks. Any ensemble whose guests range from Marilyn Horne, Liza Minnelli, and George Shearing to country crooner Reba McEntire and American Idol sensation Fantasia covers a big aesthetic territory. "There is so much wonderful popular music out there," Henderson once said. "The Pops keeps it alive for those who remember it and introduces it to those who do not."
Henderson was well known by so many audiences, with a career‹as conductor, pianist, and engaging all-around music man‹that spanned more than half a century. He played for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney; he toiled on the soundstages of MGM; he subbed for Toscanini; he was music director for Frank Sinatra's early radio series; he was the bandleader for The Tonight Show with Steve Allen and Johnny Carson; his warmly avuncular manner was known to millions; and his trademark Van Dyke beard made a serious fashion statement decades ahead of current trends.
Henderson was firmly at the helm of the New York Pops as both founder and music director, and his death at age 87 on November 1, 2005, leaves the Pops facing the challenges that confront any organization following the loss of a figure indelibly associated with its public profile. "Skitch wanted this orchestra to survive him, he made that eminently clear," says James M. Johnson, the Pops' Executive Director. "He was determined that the Pops should continue to grow and expand, and for there to be a successor as music director. He was vigorous and vital to his last day, and we had no idea that he was ill. By the same token, he was 87 years old, after all, and we did have to think about a time when he might not be able to lead the orchestra."
To that end, the Pops had previously brought in the occasional guest conductor to get acquainted with the musicians and, equally important, with its audiences, since engaging audiences in informative discussions of the music is part of a Pops conductor's gig. According to Johnson, the Pops is in no rush to appoint a successor: "We will bring in guest conductors this season and next, see how we all get along, and really take our time to find that perfect match." A quick scan of the 2006-2007 season confirms that promise: a veritable cavalcade of who's who in American pop will be featured, including Doc Severinsen, Marvin Hamlisch, and Rob Fisher, among others."
The New York Pops' current season at Carnegie Hall‹the group's 23rd‹began a few weeks after Henderson's death. At the time, Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's Executive and Artistic Director, commented, "Skitch Henderson was a dear friend of all of us at Carnegie Hall, and he was warmly loved by audiences of the New York Pops. We know he would have wanted the show to go on. In that spirit and in loving tribute to Skitch, the New York Pops has committed to performing every concert this season as originally scheduled."
And the talent has been stellar thus far. On November 11, Fisher stepped in to lead the first Pops evening without Henderson in charge. Following a spoken tribute by Walter Cronkite, one of Henderson's close friends, the concert was essentially a tribute to the "Greatest Generation," featuring popular songs of the 1940s and Marc Blitzstein's seldom-heard Airborne Symphony, narrated by actor William Hurt. A pair of Christmas concerts at Carnegie Hall‹a 17-year-old tradition for the Pops‹was led by Edwin Outwater, a rising young American maestro who is resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas.
And coming up on February 24 is an evening devoted to treasures of Italian opera and Respighi's splashy Fountains of Rome, led by Emil de Cou, familiar to balletomanes from his years leading the orchestra for American Ballet Theatre. To close the season, Fisher will return on March 24 to lead a night of music from the movies.
At The New York Pops, it's a time-honored theatrical adage in action: the show goes on.
Robert Sandla is a frequent contributor to Playbill.