"I like to say that I've created a family," says Peter Nero, who calls himself the catalyst in the chemistry between the people sitting in the concert hall and the ones up on stage, the ones who, collectively, the maestro routinely refers to as "the best orchestra of its kind in the entire cosmos."
The POPS' rotating roster includes 145 musicians, 60 of whom perform in any given series. They are an ensemble of freelancers with a variety of backgrounds, from the venerable studios of prestigious schools like the Curtis Institute of Music and the Eastman School of Music to jazz clubs in New Orleans and Atlantic City. They come from the ballet, the opera, chamber orchestras, and local bands. It is the best of all worlds, says Nero, adding that each time they get together, it's "like a homecoming."
"This orchestra can play anything that's put in front of it," he raves. "They can play Tchaikovsky, and they can play Rachmaninoff and Mozart, and they can also play big band and each thing will sound authentic, which is typical of a freelance scene. In other words, they're not musical snobs. And neither is our audience."
Nero has longstanding relationships with many of his musicians, some of whom, like timpanist Ken Miller, have been playing with The POPS since that first historic show back in 1979. "I enjoy playing music the public really enjoys," says Miller. "They're there because they really genuinely like Peter and what he does with the orchestra." Plus, says Miller of Nero, "He's such a phenomenal musician himself, being on the same stage is such a treat."
That sentiment is echoed throughout the ranks, with POPS musicians praising their legendary leader as highly as he praises them. "Peter Nero can do it all," says Principal Percussion Bill Kerrigan. "Conductor, composer, arranger, and, of course, a great pianist ... but also the way he puts his programs together, and the way he informs and entertains his audiences."
"The Philly Pops under Peter Nero is the only pops orchestra where the celebrity conductor/director performs several times during a concert," says hornist W. Marshall Sealy. "In other words, he is in the trenches with the orchestra members, which forms a tight bond with conductor and orchestra. That is rare these days."
Memorable moments? They have had quite a few. One musician recalls a performance with Mel Torm_ at Carnegie Hall. Another mentions The POPS' two recordings. Choosing just one highlight is nearly impossible, especially for Nero, whose career spans five decades and includes political figures and movie stars as well as the full range of performing artists. Peter Nero has dined with Sinatra, socialized with U.S. presidents, and been immortalized by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Nero's music has been played for astronauts: in space: thanks to his friendship with former U.S. Senator John Glenn. The maestro has even had his own brush with stardom on the silver screen.
Nero wrote the title song and original score for Sunday in New York and also appeared in the 1963 film with Jane Fonda, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Culp. "I had never done a score in my life," Nero says. He wrote it in three weeks, working around the clock from noon until six in the morning, and sleeping on a couch in the MGM studios. "You just write as fast as the pencil will go," he recalls. Nero had five credits in the film: actor, pianist, conductor, composer, and arranger. The movie also featured a fictitious Club Nero, which, Nero says, he should have opened for real, since so many people went to New York looking for it.
Hollywood success continued a decade later when a little sleeper movie called Summer of '42, starring a then-unknown actress named Jennifer O'Neill, produced a million-selling gold single and album. After 12 years and 27 albums, Peter Nero finally had his first hit single.
Musical gifts took the kid from Brooklyn to California, which is where he was living when Peter Nero and the Philly Pops gave their inaugural performance. But by 1988, Nero had made Philadelphia his home. Philadelphia, in return, embraced him as a native son.
"I really had to pinch myself to remind myself that I was getting paid," says Nero, adding that he was awed by the "real sense of community in Philadelphia. People would just stop me on the street and say, 'We want to thank you for what you're doing for the city.'"
Nero accepts the compliment but insists he wants to be remembered, in a statement he attributes to his colleague, Maestro Andr_ Previn, simply 'as a good musician.' "I never purported to be a star. I only wanted to be a good musician," he says, with a gentle reminder: "You're talking to somebody who at his first concert refused to open his mouth."
Now, at age, well...let's just call him ageless, the commanding and charismatic maestro is going strong, a skilled musician and raconteur adding to his still-growing list of accomplishments ... and stories.
For schedules and ticketing information, visit Philly Pops.
Margie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer and journalist. She is former director of communications for The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and was the host of The Philadelphia Orchestra's Global Concert Series last season.