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Los Angeles Music Review: PETER NERO (Valley Performing Arts…

NERO MY HEART TO THEE

I always have a peculiar mix of excitement and trepidation when seeing a favorite entertainer live for the first time, especially when they are well past retirement years. In the case of Peter Nero, I wondered if my memories of listening to this astounding pianist would be pushed aside by a possibly weak performance. After all, the man who started his recording career 55 years ago is now 81 years old. But the indefatigable Nero not only reminded me of his creativity with jazz renderings in the vein of George Shearing and Oscar Peterson, but he walloped those Steinway keys into submission.

The occasion was a salute to George Gershwin, the first act being standards from Broadway, and the second act offering tunes from a glorious but small film career, which was cut short by Gershwin’s untimely death. Fittingly, the 2 and 1/2 hour performance ended with “Rhapsody in Blue”: His bio tells us that Nero’s first major national TV success came at age 17 when he played the composition for solo piano and jazz band with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who introduced it in 1924. Here at Valley Performing Arts Center, there was no band. Aided only by long-time bassist Michael Barnett, Nero offered improvisations on excerpts from “Rhapsody in Blue,” and it was as transporting as a Debussy prelude or Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. The chordal structures and harmonies, riffs and arpeggios, had magical resonance that few solo piano players achieve.
Peter Nero – photo by Donna Billingsley

Vocalist Kate Strohmaier, changing outfits 3 times, offered competent interpretations on “Embraceable You,” “Stairway to Paradise,” and others, but she wan’t particularly distinctive. Barnett accompanied Nero with some wicked bass playing on “Foggy Day,” and proved himself a worthy player to Nero’s pyrotechnics. But my money was on the headliner himself. This is the type of piano playing that keyboardists in bars can only emulate and imitate. I dare anyone to silence an audience the way Nero did when, during excerpts from Porgy and Bess, he lulled us with a mystically sweet and rapturous “Bess, You is My Woman Now.” The soul-stirring textural musical overtones were better than a drug. It’s difficult to imagine someone of Nero’s age still slamming the ivories with consummate skill, but I was blown away (thanks to VPAC’s Executive Director Thor Steingraber for putting this together). Catch Nero in concert if ever you get the chance. “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is an understatement.

photo by Donna Billingsley

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Peter Nero still ‘dazzling’

By Rick Ivey
Legendary pianist Peter Nero proved this week that he still has what it takes to thrill an audience nearly six decades into his professional career.

Still touring the country at 80, Nero presented a dazzling display of talent and showmanship on the Thomasville Entertainment Foundation’s Steinway concert grand piano to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd at the Thomasville Center for the Arts.

Entitled “The Gershwin Project,” the program teamed Nero with bassist Michael Barnett in a performance of various works by 20th century American composer George Gershwin that have become standards and showpieces for Broadway, the American songbook and the concert hall.

With a myriad of great pieces to choose from, Nero said the loose format offered him the freedom to adapt and change the program as he went along, selecting pieces based on the audience response and often improvising Gershwin’s original melodies to give them his own special flare.

He made great choices throughout the evening, from energetic, jazzy medleys and variations incorporating popular favorites like “They Can’t Take That Away from Me“ and “Strike Up The Band“ to Gershwin’s more classical pieces like the beautiful , rhythmic and jazz-inspired “Second Prelude.” The audience roared its approval for an amazing arrangement of variations on “I Got Rhythm,” with nods to and elements of master composers Franz Liszt, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev, among others.

The obvious highlight – and finale – of the first act was the “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gershwin’s landmark and groundbreaking 1924 composition which first combined jazz with elements of classical music. Nero gave a moving performance of the piece, showing incredible dexterity in his fast fingering and virtuosic keyboard runs.

After intermission, Nero tore through a 27-minute medley that weaved together many of the best works of Gershwin’s relatively brief career. The athletic piece highlighted countless components of the Gershwin of jazz and Tin Pan Alley in an incredibly dizzying treatment of “Fascinating Rhythm,” for example, and Gershwin the balladeer in the moving and lyrical “Someone to Watch Over Me,” as well as a strong selection of works from Gershwin’s opera masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess.”

Nero and Barnett melded playfully on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the spirited “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” while blending beautifully to capture the soaring and often haunting melodies of “Summertime,” “Bess, You is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”

Nero’s stamina was incredible, his nimble fingers dancing gracefully, then racing madly, then dancing gracefully again across the keys to sublime effect, while Barnett’s artistry on the axe bass laid a firm foundation on which the pianist built the piece.

That single, monumental medley comprised the entire second act, and it was phenomenal and breathtaking. Who could ask for anything more?

The pairing of piano and bass is an innovative and rarely seen combination, but Nero and Barnett have collaborated in concert for 24 years, and the results are dynamic. While Nero is the obvious headliner, he generously showcased the talented Barnett in a number of bass solo segments to the delight of the audience.

The triumphant concert brought three enthusiastic standing ovations, including nearly three minutes at its finale.

Thursday’s show was not Thomasville’s introduction to Nero.

He first graced the TEF concert series in 1974 with a performance at the Thomasville Municipal Auditorium; as an 11-year-old at the time, I was fortunate that my parents saw the value in seizing every cultural opportunity that TEF offered and allowed my sisters and me to take turns using their third season ticket. I’ve been a Peter Nero fan ever since.

Somehow, I missed his 1996 performance, but there were many in the audience who remembered it well and gushed over their memories with Nero at a casual meet-and-greet opportunity after the concert. Fans from 12 to 95 lined up to speak to the artist, a few even presenting for autograph their prized vintage record albums from among the 70 he has released since 1960.

It seemed everyone had a story. One fan took years of music lessons in the vain hope of emulating the master pianist; another in her mid-50s recalled seeing Nero in Chicago during her pre-teen years. Both were still smitten with their idol years later.

Ever witty, Nero joked that he would see them again in 2035, as he seems to appear in Thomasville every 20 years or so. Let’s hope so.

The Thomasville Entertainment Foundation’s 77th concert season concludes April 14 with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, featuring clarinetist Martin Frost. For more information or tickets, contact TEF at (229) 226-7404 or www.tefconcerts.com.

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Piano Legend Peter Nero Salutes Jazz Legend Art Tatum

Jazz pianist Peter Nero performed in the second event of the 2014-15 concert series.
By Grant Turgeon
Nov. 7, 2014

EDMOND—Two-time Grammy-winning jazz pianist Peter Nero performed on November 6 at Armstrong Auditorium. Nero and his bassist of 24 years, Michael Barnett, played a nearly three-hour tribute to the late jazz pianist Art Tatum. This was the second event of the 2014-2015 Armstrong International Cultural Foundation concert series.

Nero opened with a few remarks on the evening’s program, “For Art’s Sake: A Salute to Art Tatum.” In the 1930s, Tatum introduced superior technical skill and a swinging, strong pulse to jazz piano and led the jazz improvisation movement. “He was the Vladimir Horowitz of jazz,” Nero said. “Horowitz used to pay to see him play in clubs.”

Nero then launched into the evening’s two-part program, which he dryly described as “part one and part two.” He opened with a foot-tapping improvisational jazz piece, then played “Willow Weep for Me,” a 1932 original which Tatum recorded in 1949.

Nero also played his own soundtracks from the movies, Summer of ’42 and Sunday in New York; Tatum’s rendition of All the Things You Are; Gershwin’s Banana Boat and I Got Rhythm, with written improvisations from the works of a handful of classical pianists; and a summarized score for West Side Story.

Throughout the evening, the 82-year-old Nero wowed the audience with his youthfulness, fingers that darted all over the keys in mere milliseconds and what the Palm Beach Daily News called “the energy of a 20-year-old rock-and-roll drummer.”

“He probably has the fastest fingers of anyone who has ever performed here,” Armstrong artist liaison Mark Nash commented during the first half.

Nero had the audience laughing from the start, after he walked onstage a minute or two late—and wearing mismatched brown shoes with his black suit. He explained that he’d been hunting for his black dress shoes, “but I cannot find them for the life of me.”

In between pieces, Nero chatted about Tatum’s influence on his playing style, recalled stories from his and Tatum’s careers, asserted that musicians are underpaid and discussed the musician’s obsession with perfection, cracking jokes all the while.

Nero commented on the outstanding quality of Armstrong’s Steinway piano, a Hamburg concert grand. Of playing a European Steinway, he said, “I have to speak French, German and Spanish to make it work.”

Nero said he performed three times at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, California, the building that was the inspiration for Armstrong Auditorium. He complimented the beauty of each hall, to which many in the audience nodded and whispered in agreement.

“People in Oklahoma have been very kind to me,” Nero said at the end of the night. “I feel like I should just come back here again and do nothing.”

The elderly virtuoso deserves some relaxation. Nero has recorded 68 albums since 1961. He has toured as a concert pianist for 55 years. He is known as one of the top interpreters of George Gershwin’s compositions and has played with notable musicians including Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Andy Williams and Ray Charles.

Bassist Michael Barnett attended Yale University and toured extensively with the late singer Pearl Bailey and the late jazz drummer Louie Bellson before going on tour with Nero.

The 2014-15 Armstrong International Cultural Foundation concert series continues on November 20, when classical pianist Sergio Monteiro visits Armstrong.

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Peter Nero Scores in Charleston, SC

THE BEATLES HAVE NOTHING ON PETER NERO. The legendary pianist appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show 11 times, among many other achievements, honors and awards in a long and illustrious career.

Nero created his magic for a good crowd braving the cold Tuesday night at the Sottile Theatre in the third of the Charleston Concert Association’s four-event 2013-14 season.

Exuding personality that is inexorably reflected in his style of playing, this master of the keyboard proved witty, urbane, bouncy, sophisticated, classy and irreverent, both in his remarks and in the universal language of music. He peppered his performance with one-liners that were as extemporaneous as his music-making, providing over two hours of delightful entertainment.

Michael Barnett has been Nero’s principal bassist for over 18 years, and together they made a dozen iconic compositions of their own. The founding conductor and Artistic Director of his trademark Philly Pops and a Grammy-winning recording artist with 68 albums to his credit, Nero is primarily noted as a jazz pianist, and did he and Barnett ever jazz up Valentine’s Day with “Music of the Heart.”

In every selection, Nero’s embellishments from hiccupping grace notes to block chords, doubling octaves to doodling around a single note, informed songs that ranged from 1930s pop tunes to Broadway classics, a bit of classical concert repertoire to straight-ahead jazz. Nero demonstrated in his opening number how “I Can’t Get Started With You” is based on an opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s, and later Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” morphed in the most natural and insightful way to “Night and Day.” His ability to render with consummate grace the most lyrical passage, then create a riff that quadruples the speed and harmonic complexity of the same melody, is nothing short of brilliant.

The way Nero played Jerome Kern’s gorgeous “All the Things You Are” brought sighs, followed by wonderful things happening from bass to treble, supported by the bass line that adds a welcome dimension of depth and resonance. It’s the texture, so subtly interwoven with the melodies we know, that make every phrase intriguing and every performance different: 75 percent of what they do is improvisation, or improvisational, Nero stated.

Choosing to announce selections from the stage, so he could “call ‘em as I feel ‘em,” Nero had trouble with his mic so that some audience members protested they could not hear/understand him, and no one wanted to miss a syllable. The artist calmly strolled over to another mic stage left, removed it from its stand, dragged it back to his Steinway muttering something about “gain,“ and quipped, “I belong to the wrong union for this.” Then he asked, since we assured him this was better, why we weren’t rolling in the aisles laughing. “My Funny Valentine” was a must-play for this occasion, and you have never heard it quite like this—and will not again.

Concluding the first half of the eclectic program was an incredible take on “I Got Rhythm” from George Gershwin’s 1930 musical “Girl Crazy” which put Ethel Merman on the map. Nero’s “The I Got Rhythm Variations” incorporates the styles of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, and “premiered at the Daytona 500.” Nero’s fingers fairly skittered over the ivories, hitting notes—and all the right ones—with the same speed and precision as a flurry of hummingbird wings.

After what could have been an awkward moment as Nero drew the winning number in a raffle for a giant box of chocolates won by a season ticket subscriber were it not for Nero’s ad-libbed running commentary, Nero announced he was a romantic, married for 53 years (applause, applause)—“to three different wives, what’s the difference?” This led to a romantic ballad, natch, Michelle LeGrand’s theme from the motion picture, “The Summer of ’42” which won Nero a Gold Record.

Each song has a life of its own, and Nero never fails to give them a new one, with his explorations that sound as though they are endemic to the original. Indeed, in Nero’s unique designs and configurations, they are. In a well-developed medley of Gershwin songs that segued seamlessly from one to another, we recognized “The Man I Love,” a lick of “Rhapsody in Blue,” the street sounds of “An American in Paris” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin.”

Perhaps the spontaneity of the standing ovation sparked Nero into giving us a new perspective on Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” every song in the musical standing on its own for the first time—a classic way to end a concert that had us whistling and humming all the way down the aisles. Bravo, sir.

Read the full review at CharlestonTimes.net

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National Treasure

by Mark Ira Kaufman

[…] But in terms of ability to play almost anything on the piano at a dizzying level of excellence, one American pianist stands above all others. You may have heard the name. But in all likelihood, his piano playing is beyond most piano playing you’ve ever heard. And if you’ve never heard a note he played, you’ve not heard one of the most proficient and musical pianists alive today.

His name is Peter Nero. For decades, he was the musical director of the Philly Pops Orchestra, which he created 34 years ago. While the Boston Pops is more famous, its inventiveness and variety of material is matched by the Philly Pops. Like its more famous compatriot, the Philly Pops plays orchestral versions of popular jazz, swing, Broadway songs and blues.

Peter-NeroThe Julliard-trained pianist recently retired from his post as its director. Still, the Philly Pops was Nero’s second ‘instrument.’ And he played it like a master. But outside Philadelphia, Nero will always be thought of as a pianist. And what a pianist he is.

Nero’s first album for RCA, Piano Forte, released in 1961, won a Grammy that year for “Best New Artist.” He received another Grammy and garnered ten more nominations. Nero’s association with RCA produced 23 albums in eight years. His subsequent move to Columbia Records resulted in a million-selling single and album, Summer of ’42.

In all, Nero has released nearly 70 albums.

Read the rest of “National Treasure” here…

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‘Peter Nero: Classic Connections’ at Hylton Performing Arts Center

When I was about 11 years old, I saw the talented and comedic Victor Borge perform at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. I wasn’t there to see him, though, I went to see Ann Jillian sing, and he performed with her. Now 25 years later, I don’t remember much about that performance, except being mesmerized by Borge’s skill at turning “Happy Birthday” (watch it below) into a classical and comedic masterpiece. I was hooked at how one song can be transformed into many different ways. In a sense, that performance influenced the type of musician I am today.

Peter Nero is a two-time Grammy Award-winning pianist and conductor, who just recently stepped down after 34 years as Music Director of the Philly Pops (who for almost 20 years performed in that same old opera house where Borge tickled the ivories that magical night). Nero has done it all: trained at Julliard; performed on Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan; conducted orchestras all over the country; and has collaborated with such artists as Mel Torme and Doc Severinson. He is a truly unique musician -maybe one of the last of his kind – creating a bridge between classic music, pop music, and comedy.

Saturday’s night’s concert in the four-year-old Hylton Performing Arts Center on the Prince William campus of George Mason University was a complete evening of great music and entertainment. Nero plays the piano with such a jubilant intensity that he is a modern day Victor Borge. He plays classically as well as Arthur Rubinstein, rocks as masterfully as Elton John or Billy Joel, and entertains like a subdued Liberace.

Nero opened the concert with the classic Richard Rodgers song “Mountain Greenery,” accompanied by Mozart themes in his left hand. When Nero plays in his unique style, it is almost as if he is two people playing simultaneous patterns that are written to fit together perfectly. He went on to his ‘Andrew Lloyd Puccini’ section pointing out the obvious similarities between Phantom Of The Opera and La fanciulla del West. But he went one step further and bookended his mash-up with a bit of Maurice Ravel.

After a delightful rendition of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” he played a beautiful Chopin piece with the melody of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns,” followed by an impression theme and variations on George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” as if they were written by Racmaninoff, Beethoven, Liszt, and Prokofiev.

The second half of his evening began with the famous Mozart tune, “Yellow Rose of Texas,” followed by an impressive improv jam session between himself and his equally as talented bassist, Michael Barnett. Barnett was playing an electric double bass, which almost seems like an oxymoron, but the tone of his instrument was very deep and wooden, and not at all metallic like normal electric basses produce.

Nero is also artfully comedic with his repartee with the audience and in one of many chats with the audience, he pointed out that due to an unfortunate missing line break in the program, the title of two Cole Porter songs became the new and very ironic song “Every Time We Say Goodbye It’s Alright With Me.”

The Hylton Performing Arts Center is a gorgeous new concert hall that is beautifully designed and has very crisp acoustics. On Saturday night for a brief moment I felt like I was back as my 11 year-old self at the Academy of Music, but only this time it was Peter Nero who left me mesmerized.

Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with a twenty minute intermission.

Peter Nero: Classic Connections played September 21, 2013 at Hylton Performing Arts Center – 10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. For future events, visit their calendar of upcoming events.

Posted on September 22, 2013 by Keith Tittermary

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Best of Broadway

The Foundation of Morris Hall/St. Lawrence, Inc. is pleased to announce that Peter Nero and the Philly Pops will return to the Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial on Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 7:30 pm. The concert, “The Best of Broadway” will feature guest artists Christianne Noll, Gary Mauer, and Debbie Gravitte.

Peter Nero received his first Grammy® Award more than 40 years ago. He recorded his first album in 1961 and won a Grammy that year for “Best New Artist.” Since then, he has received another Grammy Award, garnered a total of 10 Grammy nominations and recorded 67 albums. One of Nero’s greatest achievements is the founding of the world renowned Philly Pops, one of the largest independent pops orchestras in the country.

The proceeds of this concert will benefit The Foundation of Morris Hall/St. Lawrence, Inc. The mission of the Foundation is to provide dollars towards delivering quality healthcare for uninsured patients and indigent residents at St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center and Morris Hall. It also provides medical equipment for patients and residents that is not reimbursed by healthcare insurance. The Foundation promotes safety education and injury prevention programs in the community for children and caretakers.

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Nero making his last stand with Philly Pops

It is entirely possible that somewhere, somehow, there is a jazz joint Peter Nero never played, a TV show or variety hour on which he did not banter, a belter or hoofer with whom he never shared the stage, or a pops orchestra he failed to lead.

Possible, but not likely.

In Philadelphia, he has been known as the suave personification of the Philly Pops, and if Philadelphia is a town that likes its maestros long-lived, Nero’s local popularity is easily explained. He has been artistic chief of the Philly Pops for nearly 31/2 decades – since its start.

On that feat, some perspective: In the same 34 years, the Philadelphia Orchestra changed conductors six times – and it has had only nine leaders in its history.

Nero’s fidelity is palpable on the streets when a Starbucks barista spots the white goatee and gushes, or a couple overhearing mention of his name at the library the other day looked up to ask: “Peter Nero – is he in town?”
The answer, since 1979, has been yes, the maestro is in. But not for much longer. Nero’s last stand as leader of the Philly Pops is a set of concerts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. He was recently picked up by CAMI, the powerful booking agency, which has put in place a crowded roster of dates across the country for the pianist and conductor, who, at nearly 79, is still working like a kid who very much needs to prove his worth.

Did Philadelphia take him for granted, or did it return his loyalty in kind? Some of each, to be sure. To see tears in the eyes of listeners grateful to reconnect with the soundtrack of their youth, to sense the bloom of patriotism he could stir in a room of 2,500 – or on a grassy lawn of 10,000 – well, for many performers that would be career satisfaction enough.

But Nero, the man as well as the artist, is restless. Pugnacious, garrulous, hard to manage, and demanding, too. He’s decided at this late stage to learn Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Can a jazz pianist do that? Anyone who has heard him warm up at the keyboard with Chopin’s Etude No. 1 wouldn’t bet against it.

More doubtful than whether Nero was fully appreciated here is the question of whether he has had handlers who knew how to fully exploit his enormous and sometimes unwieldy talent. Nero has never projected a lack of confidence or ego. Yet when you look at his full musical range, you wonder why more depth wasn’t developed on stage here. An entire program could have been conjured from his score to Sunday in New York, a 1963 Jane Fonda film “in which Peter Nero’s theme song,” the New York Times once opined, “was quite possibly more memorable than the script.”

In a way, Nero’s trajectory was the story of the American musical scene of the 20th century, and we got but a slice of it. He followed a common migratory path, yet somehow came away with a sui generis career: Brooklyn son of immigrants, New York talent-show circuit, studies at the Juilliard School, nightclub entertainer at famed New York clubs like Jilly’s and Hickory House, habitué of lucrative spots with Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, and the Oprah of early TV, Ohio talk-show host Ruth Lyons.

Nero was a canny careerist, both in terms of recognizing people who could be helpful to him, and, more interesting, by quickly jumping aboard cultural change.

Particularly smart was his switch from cocktail lounge to concert stage – just as the pops format nationally was transforming from light classics to time machine. When, at a recent Philly Pops concert, Nero put together a quick “Gangnam Style” sketch, he was simply doing what he’s always done. He didn’t write the theme song of the popular 1971 movie Summer of ’42, but he was fast out of the box with a single of it that went gold. When the 2001 version of the made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song became a phenomenon, he was right there with his own version of the theme.

At about the same time, he toured with the New York Philharmonic. Few violated the boldly drawn borders of the music world the way he did, as anyone who attended early Philly Pops concerts could attest. The first season ended with tunes from The Wiz, and the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Critics sometimes winced. Audiences adored him for it.

Egalitarianism and commercialism elided comfortably in Nero’s reality. With RCA Victor and Columbia, Nero recorded dozens of albums – most often featuring him with a doe-eyed brunette at his shoulder, or sometimes more. “Xochimilco,” a piece he wrote for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, ended up as the title track on an album featuring him surrounded by three adoring señoritas bearing flowers.

There seemed hardly a cause, cultural movement, or celebration to which Nero was unwilling to apply his talents. He wrote a brass fanfare for the Constitution bicentennial. He appeared in a post-9/11 ad campaign imploring spooked Americans to travel again. When Chock Full O’ Nuts revived its famous 1950s jingle, it asked Nero to play it again.

On stage, he was as likely to be found in the company of Patti Page or Mel Tormé as Kathie Lee Gifford or a bevy of break-dancers (hop-hop in 1984, no less). In between, in the ’70s, he cleared out all traces of pop culture or irony to write a kind of secular cantata to Anne Frank for orchestra, chorus, jazz musicians, and vocal soloists.

Nero’s permeable artistic portfolio wasn’t designed to thumb its nose at the establishment (though he clearly enjoyed that aspect of it). Rather, it came from a sense that all shades of musical fashion could be donned simultaneously without fear of clashing patterns and colors.

On the surface, anyone could have followed the same template. But Nero alone has the qualities to hear the full potential. As a pianist, he has golden instincts for how listeners perceive music – his timing for letting a musical joke set in, for gauging just how much of a tune to obscure in order to preserve the ear’s sense of discovery and invention, and a concise wit for drawing parallels between seemingly unrelated sources.

Was it art? Entertainment? Fans long ago decided it didn’t matter. Now the verdict of music history seems to be coming down on his side. Music is music, labels not so useful after all.

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Peter Nero is recognized by the City Council for…

Maestro Peter Nero, founding music director of Peter Nero and the Philly POPS ®, will be recognized by Councilman-At-Large James F. Kenney “for his ifetime of contributions to musical excellence and his commitment to preserving Philadelphia as a national focal point for arts and culture.” The ceremony will take place Thursday, January 31 at 10 a.m.

Honoring Grammy-award winning pianist Peter Nero is especially poignant as he moves on and begins to our the country at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 Philly POPS season in May. Launched on November 25, 1979, Maestro Nero has brought great pride and prestige to the City of Philadelphia for this 34-year history of presenting outstanding, quality POP music to audiences.

Highlights of Peter Nero’s career are:

  • Two Grammy Award winning recordings – 1961 Best New Artist and 1962, for Best Instrumentalist and arranger.
  • Million-selling single and album — The Summer of ’42
  • Numerous national television show appearances — 11 times on The Ed Sullivan Show and numerous times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; Emmy Award-winning NBC Special S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Gershwin; PBS-TV Piano Pizzazz with the National Symphony at Wolftrap and on the annual July 4 special from Washington, D.C., A Capitol Fourth: PBS-TV Special 25th Anniversary Of The Kennedy Center; PBS-TV The Songs of Johnny Mercer: Too Marvelous for Words with co-stars Johnny Mathis and Melissa Manchester
    • His first major national TV success was at age 17 when he was chosen to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on Paul Whiteman’s TV Special.
  • 68 Recordings
  • Composed the score and performed in the film Sunday in New York starring Jane Fonda, Rod Taylor, Robert Culp and Cliff Robertson.
  • Peter Nero has performed with Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Mel Torme, Andy Williams, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Diane Schuur, Johnny Mathis and others.
  • Senator/Astronaut/Narrator John Glenn woke up in space to Peter Nero’s composition “Voyage into Space” on his last mission.
  • Peter has written other original orchestral and choral compositions including the Diary of Anne Frank, a work using Anne’s words as lyrics for 15 songs, a piece entitled Suite in 4 Movements for Piano and Orchestra and an orchestral tone poem, His World.
  • A Long List of honors highlighted by:
    • American Federation of Musicians’ Lifetime Achievement Award
    • Mario Lanza Award, in recognition of outstanding achievement in the field of music;
    • International Society of Performing Arts Presenters Award for Excellence in the Arts;
    • Pennsylvania Distinguished Arts Award
    • Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia’s Lincoln Award
    • Six honorary doctorates
    • Stars in the Philadelphia and Miami historic walks of fame.
  • Over 30 years in Philadelphia’s Fourth of July weekend celebrations. Peter is scheduled for July 3rd this year and next.
  • And much more!
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Peter Nero and the Philly Pops open 34th Season

by Peter Dobrin

No one does variety hour quite like Peter Nero. In fact, in the old show-business sense of it, nearly no one but Nero practices the form at all anymore. And when Nero moves on at the end of this season from his 34 years as chief of the Philly Pops, the concept may disappear altogether.

Nero himself may not consider what he does to be of the variety-hour variety, but consider what tapped and shuffled across the stage Friday night: the concertmaster from Buffalo playing a tango tune from a recent film; a song-and-dance duo with a tribute to Fred and Ginger; direct from Spain, the dark and handsome classical guitarist you may have already seen on YouTube; a free-wheeling Richard Rodger symphonic tribute. And more.

In case you haven’t already guessed it, the variety weighed in at considerably more than an hour, at 2 ½. Of course, there was Nero himself, presiding over the whole evening from the keyboard with occasional quips about politics and a pianistic facility that straddles what could have been in lesser hands a tasteless overlapping of classical and jazz. He has the gift of making it sound like these two worlds were conceived as two halves waiting to discover each other.

Nero takes three more programs this season, and then he’s gone. He’s been picked up by a savvy New York agent who has booked him for concerts in other cities. The Pops’ new leaders have not said which conductor is taking over next season, though it can’t be another Nero. It’s a small talent pool, these pianist-composer-pops conductors with major recording careers. Until recently, it included just one other member: Marvin Hamlisch, who had been, until his death in August, first choice as Nero’s successor. Nero dedicated part of this weekend’s Philly Pops program to Hamlisch, playing a medley from A Chorus Line.

The bulk of the program, though, was taken by Joan Hess and Kirby Ward, who personified the kind of smooth professionalism that Nero has consistently imported in his guest choices. Singing and dancing to songs from the 1930s, they took over a small portion of the Verizon Hall stage in front of the ensemble. If you were constantly afraid someone was going to put a Capezio through a cello, you could take particular pleasure in the small-framed Kirby, an elegant presence who managed to make the famous scene from “Singing in the Rain” his own rather than aping Gene Kelly.

The orchestra went silent and the house dark when a spotlight shone on Pablo Sáinz Villegas, a classical guitarist who created an impressive reserve of tranquility in Koyunbaba, a plaintive and sometime microtonal evocation of a mystical Turkish shepherd by contemporary Italian guitarist/composer Carlo Domeniconi.

This was about as far from 1930s song and dance routines as you could get. Or Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Or Count Basie. On paper, the juxtapositions look absurd. But they work. And it’s safe to say that when the task at hand is morphing a Tchaikovsky 5/4 waltz with Richard Rodgers, there’s only one maestro for the job, and your chances to hear him are quickly drawing to a close.

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