Tacy Edwards dreamed of forming a symphony in North Charleston for years, but it took her casually floating the concept to Mayor Keith Summey to make it a reality, and in just five minutes.
What: North Charleston Pops! “Music of Stage and Screen” When: 7:30 p.m. SaturdayWhere: North Charleston Performing Arts Center, 5001 Coliseum DrivePrice: $15-$35; active and retired military can save $5 by showing military ID at the Coliseum Advance Ticket WindowFor more info: www.northcharlestoncoliseumpac.com
“We had a press conference last spring about North Charleston’s 40th anniversary celebration, and I mentioned that idea,” Edwards recalls. “The mayor turns around and announces that we have a North Charleston Pops! orchestra.”
To Summey’s credit, a de facto North Charleston Pops! has been unofficially coming together for years. Whenever a traveling Broadway musical came through town (most recently “Wicked” and “Mary Poppins”), the Performing Arts Center called upon Edwards to assemble musicians to perform the score.
The city’s 40th anniversary last year was highlighted by an Earth, Wind & Fire concert, requiring a sizeable local ensemble. With Edwards already pulling together her musical connections for that performance, the timing was perfect for the formation of an official orchestra.
Unlike a traditional symphony, a “pops” orchestra is free of traditional restraints regarding material. Whereas a standard city ensemble might hesitate to incorporate renditions of popular rock songs, it’s common practice for a pops orchestra. In that way, North Charleston Pops! is designed to complement the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, offering listeners the opportunity to enjoy both traditional classical compositions and pop culture works without leaving the Lowcountry.
Spreading its wings
After the momentum created by Summey’s unexpected announcement, Edwards quickly got to work.
Jeffrey Reed, a colleague from her work as the principle flutist with Orchestra Kentucky (in Bowling Green), was brought on as the musical director. Together, in less than a month, they decided upon an inaugural season of concerts.
The North Charleston Pops! officially debuted on Nov. 10, drawing more than 1,000 attendees for a “Tribute to Our Veterans” show of classic patriotic music. They followed that with “Lowcountry Christmas” on Dec. 8.
For their final two shows of the season, however, the group gets to spread its wings and delve into broad material, beginning with “Music of Stage and Screen” on Saturday.
“My philosophy about programming is probably different than other conductors,” explains Reed. “I really think that in these times, people have such eclectic tastes. They don’t just listen to one radio station, and music collections have a lot of variety. Orchestras need to learn from that and emulate it if they’re going to grow and survive.”
To that end, the “Stage and Screen” show will feature plenty of familiar scores and songs, including several by esteemed composer John Williams. Fans of films such as “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman” will get the rare chance to experience a 55-piece orchestra playing the themes live.
“I’ve seen an interview of orchestral musicians, people who actually make a living playing in orchestras, where they were asked, ‘What made you interested in orchestral music?’ ” recalls Reed. “A lot of people said ‘Star Wars.’ It really did change our society in a lot of ways, and John Williams has done more for the development of orchestras than anybody else in the last 50 years.”
Rounding out the show are classic pieces from stage shows, including “Fiddler on the Roof” and “West Side Story,” as well as classic and modern films including “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Throughout the show, scenes from the various films will be aired via projection behind the orchestra, effectively introducing the piece and setting the mood.
“We live in a very visual society,” said Reed, explaining the decision to incorporate film clips into an orchestral performance. “Years ago, people weren’t so visual; they were more aural, and were able to sit for long periods of time. Nowadays, I think having a visual element is very important.”
The concert also will incorporate special guest vocalists Tim and Sara King, a father-daughter team who will handle vocals during certain selections, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Unexpected Song” (from the musical “Song and Dance”) and a medley from “Les Miserables.”
“I chose Tim and Sara because of their real ability to connect with an audience,” attests Reed. “They both have amazing voices and great stage presence, and it’s unique to have a father and daughter like this. Plus, they’re both high-quality singers and high-quality people, and I think that comes across in their performances.”
Relatively speaking, 2012 was not the best time in history to found an orchestra.
Across the nation, orchestras are struggling to survive, with renowned ensembles such as the Philadelphia Orchestra declaring bankruptcy just last year, and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra weathering financial troubles of its own.
“Whether we like it or not, we live in an age where orchestras are not as popular with the vast majority of people as they once were,” acknowledges Reed. “To survive, we need to start responding to changes in society. That’s not to say we ‘dumb down’ concerts, but we do need to be more accessible to the public.”
Reed makes a point to straddle the contemporary and traditional worlds, maintaining respect in each. He recently conducted a concert with legendary singer Neil Sedaka at the Royal Albert Hall in London, just after performing Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Kentucky.
“I do anything and everything,” Reed said. “The point is to make people happy. If you bore them, that’s not a good way to make friends. Conductors, I think, have a duty to try to help raise the level of musical appreciation in their community, but I think sometimes we go overboard. I think you need to give people something in every concert that they can identify with. It’s entertainment, as well as enrichment.”
For the North Charleston Pops! to sustain itself into future seasons, Reed stresses the importance of community support, in ticket purchases, donors, corporate sponsors and seasonal subscribers.
Both Reed and Edwards are quick to point out that the musicians who comprise North Charleston Pops! are not hobbyists, but paid professionals. Several members also perform with the pair in Kentucky, making the commute to North Charleston for each of the season’s four shows. The orchestra composition is “95 percent local,” many of whom perform with various ensembles around Charleston, including principle trumpet Cameron Handel, who also tours internationally with singer Michael Bolton.
“Being a musician myself, I know a lot of the freelance players in town,” Edwards said. “We have so much talent here, and Jeffrey really brings out the best in the musicians. He lets them flourish, and people love playing with him, so it’s a happy situation on the job site where we’re all having fun making music together.”
Edwards is careful to hire musicians with great attitudes and “lots of happy energy,” underlying the notion that pops music is about enjoying yourself and not being too rigid in the approach.
That’s a sentiment evident in the final Pops! concert of the year, a tribute to The Beatles set for March 23.
And there’s already talk of a Motown show for the 2013-14 season. With original rock ’n’ roll fans now creeping into their 70s (Paul McCartney himself turned 70 last year), the overlap between orchestral and rock music is greater than ever.
“Our vision is to have a broader audience than just what classical music would bring,” Edwards said. “Ultimately, I think this will benefit the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, because we’re introducing music to people who may have never gone to an orchestra before, and then after this, they’re willing to try something a little more highbrow. That is not our purpose though. Our purpose is to have fun and entertain and play music that people have grown up to, music that’s part of a fabric of our being.”
At the “Tribute to Our Veterans” debut show, audience members stood and clapped and swayed along to the songs.
“They’re connecting with the music,” Edwards said. “That doesn’t happen at most orchestras.”
Conductor Reed explains the Pops! motivation in simple terms.
“Nobody wants to go to a concert to hear something they don’t know,” he says. “Whether it’s a rock concert or an orchestra, it’s about entertainment.”