Steven Reineke relishes his role as a crown prince of pops programming

Steven Reineke believes that pops concerts build audiences: "I want the orchestra to be welcoming. And the best way to do that is through programming that entices them [new audiences] to come hear the orchestra perform."

©Michael Tammaro

The word “pops” conjures up blissful thoughts of relaxed musical evenings with friends and lots of irrepressible toe-tapping.

Following in the tradition of pops greats Arthur Fielder and John Williams, the undisputed king of the genre today is the ebullient, Ohio-born conductor-composer Steven Reineke. Exuding an enthusiasm that is positively infectious, Reineke is the music director of the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall and is the principal pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, as well as the Houston and Toronto symphonies. A protégé of Erich Kunzel, known as “The Prince of Pops,” Reineke formerly served as associate conductor of the Cincinnati Pops under Kunzel, as well as the orchestra’s primary arranger.

Reineke credits his destiny to his father, who would sing him to sleep with the popular tunes of the day. “I was drawn to music for the masses, music that people could sing along to," said Reineke, who who will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Broadway program June 9 featuring musical-theater superstar Kelli O'Hara. “It wasn’t high-falutin stuff, which I think had some influence when I became a classical musician.”

Though Reineke formally studied trumpet, he would come home from movies and play through their scores from memory on the piano. “I just figured them out,” he said, laughing. “I thought everybody did that.” After college, he came to Kunzel’s attention and the rest, as they say, is history.

So what is pops? And what is its purpose? “It’s getting trickier to give it a strict definition,” Reineke said. “I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘pops.’ It’s pretty old-school. The lines are getting more blurred, as some creative music directors on the so-called classical side are venturing more into collaborations with popular artists who are sometimes outside the classical realm, and vice versa. Pops obviously came originally as a diminutive of popular, so popular music. I guess that’s still right in a way to delineate it from classical literature.

“But on the pops side, the sky is the limit. We have the ability to perform any kind of music that we can make work within an orchestral setting, but it’s often collaborative, based on working with artists in different genres. We can keep the great American songbook alive, we do Nelson Riddle, big band, the Broadway canon, jazz, bluegrass, film music, light classics. We’ve branched into hip-hop and rap and rock ’n' roll music. We can easily put an orchestra with Billy Joel, Elton John or Sting, or any of these people, and it works.

“It’s important to preserve that wonderful side of music that’s been around for a good 400 years. But I think that orchestras are service organizations as well. We are not just museums or keepers of artifacts, we are a service to our community, and are enlightening them and serving all parts of that community, not just the stereotypical classical music lover. This means reaching out to many different demographics, all the types of people who live within our communities. I want the orchestra to be welcoming to them. And the best way to do that is through programming that entices them to come hear the orchestra perform.

“So that’s where the pops side of things can really expand the reach of an orchestra. In my last 10 years I’ve re-imagined how I think about it, and I think, what is the next part of the community that we are leaving out? It’s about expanding the types of offerings we can do. When I do a collaboration, I make sure it’s a true collaboration,” he said. “My collaborations are truly a partnership.”

Reprinted with permission from Ravinia magazine