CSO pops for 4th of July at Ravinia
Updated: June 28, 2012 2:28PM
In an unusual bit of programming, an all-American Pops concert on the Fourth of July will open the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s residency at the Ravinia Festival this season.
Instead of Beethoven, Chopin or Liszt, the composers will be Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. And both the conductor Steven Reineke and vocalist Ashley Brown will be making their Ravinia Festival debuts.
Brown, who played the title role in “Mary Poppins” on Broadway and on tour, is known to Chicago audiences for her role as Magnolia in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of the musical “Show Boat” at the Civic Opera House last February and March.
Reineke is certainly the right person to lead the 5 p.m. Ravinia concert. He replaced Skitch Henderson in 2010 as music director of the New York Pops and for 15 years he worked with the late Erich Kunzel as principal arranger of the Cincinnati Pops. Kunzel became its conductor when it was established in 1977 and under his baton it grew to international fame.
A favorite at the Ravinia Festival, Kunzel celebrated his 30th anniversary at the park in 2008 with three concerts, including a tribute to John Williams, an evening of music from Broadway, and his traditional Labor Day Spectacular, when he conducted music of Tchaikovsky, including the “1812 Overture,” complete with live cannons.
For decades Kunzel’s concert was the finale of the season. Now Tchaikovsky night can turn up anywhere on the summer schedule; this year’s will be Sunday, July 29, with music director James Conlon on the podium, and yes, the cannons will be firing.
“As Kunzel’s arranger I was at Ravinia many, many times with him,” said Reineke, when reached by telephone in New York City, which is now his home. “But I never conducted, so I am thrilled to be making my festival debut.”
Early in his career the conductor, now 42, moved from his native Cincinnati to Los Angeles to study film composing with such luminaries as multiple Oscar winner Henry Mancini.
So it is no surprise that, in addition to “Liberty Fanfare” by John Williams, Morton Gould’s “American Salute,” Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” and a medley of music from Disney films, his Ravinia program will include two of his own works, “Celebration Fanfare” and “A George M. Cohen Overture.”
His meeting with the legendary Kunzel was almost serendipitous. “At one point I was back in Cincinnati doing some orchestration for music to be used on a Telarc album,” Reineke said. “Kunzel needed an orchestrator and he had heard about me.”
The first words the Prince of Pops said to the young man when they met were “So kid, are you any good?” Startled, Reineke managed to reply, “I like to think so.
“I watched him and learned so much from him,” he added. “He was the greatest friend, teacher and mentor anyone could ever have.”
Reineke’s New York Pops plays a full season in Carnegie Hall and has played summer concerts in Central Park. When asked whether Pops programs might lead audiences to become classical music fans, he was not optimistic.
“You’d think we could be a bridge between the two, but there is not that much crossover,” he said. “We have our regular audience and the New York Philharmonic has theirs.”
He paused for a moment, then aded “I do think the older people, like those in their 30s and 40s, already have their tastes set. But I think if young people, children in school, come to the Pops and experience a symphony orchestra for the first time, they might want to hear more.”
He did say, however, that film music, especially scores by symphonic composers such as Academy Award winners John Williams and Howard Shore could possibly provide a transition. Williams himself conducted five nights of film music at the Ravinia Festival between 1985 and 1999.
July 4 will also mark the first time Reineke has conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I remember the last words that Erich said to me,” he said, “They were ‘Always make me proud of you.’ I think he would be proud that I was conducting the Chicago Symphony.”
Kunzel died Sept. 1, 2009, and that year he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra’s annual Independence Day Concert, televised on PBS from the lawn of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., as he had every year since 199l.
This year on July 7, Reineke conducts that same orchestra in the music of John Williams at its summer residency in Wolf Trap, Virginia.
Certainly another reasons to make his mentor proud.