Peter runs through “It’s Alright With Me” before a concert.
He won two Grammy Awards, conducted the Philly Pops orchestra and composed a choral and orchestral work inspired by Anne Frank’s diary
By Harrison Smith
When it came to music, pianist Peter Nero had little use for labels. For more than a half-century, the Juilliard-educated conductor, composer and musician seamlessly bridged pop, jazz and classical traditions, performing eclectic programs in which the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony might segue into the jazz standard “Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” Carole King and “Jesus Christ Superstar” tunes would give way to works by Gershwin and Chopin, and an aria from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” would suddenly transform into the show tune “Memory,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” — with a few classical allusions thrown in for good measure.
“That was ‘Memory,’ by Webber and Rice and Puccini and Ravel,” Mr. Nero would tell the audience, offering a characteristically mischievous explanation from the podium. Once, describing his improvisatory version of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” he noted that the song was “semi-jazz and quasi-Bach.”
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Peter Nero, a Grammy-winning pianist who interpreted pop songs through classical and jazz forms and served as the Philly Pops’ conductor for more than three decades, has died. Nero was 89.
Nero died Thursday at Home Care Assisted Living Facility in Eustis, Fla., according to his daughter, Beverly Nero, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Services will be private.
Nero colored his renditions of pop songs — from Cole Porter and George Gershwin to the Beatles and Bob Dylan — with classical, swing, Broadway, blues and jazz melodies. He often called his sound “undefinable” and was not offended when others called it “middle of the road.” (He once told a newspaper, “Middle of the road and doing great business.”)
Recruited by Philadelphia concert promoter Moe Septee, Nero started the Philly Pops orchestra in 1979, the year Arthur Fiedler died. Fiedler is credited with virtually inventing the modern version of the pops orchestra in Boston, and Nero hoped to rival it in popularity.
“I’d like to beat the pants off them,” Nero said at the time.
Famed pianist and Pops legend Peter Nero has died at 89
by Earl Hopkins and Peter Dobrin
Published Jul 8, 2023
The musical auteur and longtime director of the Philadelphia Pops died Thursday, but his winning charm and graceful pianism will be remembered beyond the scores he conducted and concert stages he graced.
Peter Nero, 89, the legendary pianist, longtime player-conductor of the Philly Pops, and jazz maestro, died Thursday.
His daughter, Beverly Nero, said he died of natural causes at Home Care Assisted Living Facility in Eustis, Fla. Services will be private.
“We are saddened today to hear of Peter Nero’s passing,” the Philly Pops wrote in a statement. “There are countless unforgettable moments which Peter brought to Philadelphia. The Philly Pops has always been inspired by his vision, his talent, and his artistry.”
Peter Nero, Pianist Who Straddled Genres, Is Dead at 89
He soared to popularity with a swinging hybrid of classics and jazz. He later conducted the Philly Pops, often with one hand while the other played piano.
Peter Nero, the concert pianist who soared to popularity in the 1960s with a swinging hybrid of classics and jazz and kept the beat for nearly six decades with albums, club and television dates, and segues into conducting pops orchestras, died on Thursday in Eustis, Fla. He was 89.
His daughter, Beverly Nero, said he died at the At Home Care Assisted Living Facility, where he had lived in recent months.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.