‘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

Original Article

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.

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!

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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Fans hail the conquering Nero

The Philly Pops leader has thrived on his bond with the audience.

By Peter Dobrin

Inquirer Music Critic

The Philadelphia Enquirer

If the perfect pops conductor could be conjured, materializing on stage in a smartly proportioned package of art and entertainment, he might answer to this description:

Huge talent with polymath abilities and catholic tastes. Musician who actually enjoys giving audiences what they want. Maestro with charm to chat up donors and even carry on e-mail exchanges with fans. Plays piano like a dream.

If you crowned this conductor with a silvery aureole of hair and white goatee, then seasoned him with a musical trajectory that started on the New York children’s talent-show circuit and evolved into a big fat show-business career, he might look something like . . .

“Peter Nero! I just want to tell you how much I love your music,” says a young man stopping the conductor on Broad Street recently.

Nero smiles and shakes the man’s hand. “That’s why I decided to move here,” says the Philly Pops music director, who opens a stand of 10 holiday concerts this afternoon that will put him in touch with 20,000 more Nero lovers before its last jingle bells have fallen silent.

Nero has led the Pops since its founding in 1979, and his Broad Street encounter embodies the kind of relationship any arts group today would kill for.

Which makes this moment in time all the more interesting, since despite his balletic vigor and a nimble pianism (as likely to reference Tchaikovsky as Oscar Peterson), Nero, 73, clearly won’t stand atop his podium forever.

Not that the Pops is making any real succession plans. Things are too good. The Pops, which now operates under the organizational arm of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, plays to 90 percent-of-capacity houses. It contributed $600,000 to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s budget in the last fiscal year, which helped the orchestra end the year in the black.

“Peter’s not going anywhere,” said Craig Hamilton, the Pops’ general manager. “Peter is the brand.”

It’s true literally as well as figuratively: Nero owns the name of the group. “There’s a licensing fee the Philadelphia Orchestra Association pays for use of the brand Peter Nero and the Philly Pops,” Hamilton says.

Some pops orchestras build seasons around repertoire – Broadway, big-band nostalgia acts, light classics such as Rhapsody in Blue – or lure audiences with bankable, big-name artists like Johnny Mathis.

The Philly Pops has programmed such elements. But the group – which was started by impresario Moe Septee – has built its constituency mainly on the star power of a thrice-married, Brooklyn-born, former child prodigy whose inability to separate music into neatly defined genres has won him love and prosperity.

Nero is the conductor who, in a single two-hour concert, programmed music from Saturday Night Fever and Carmen. And Alfie. And Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

“It was a test of musical brotherhood,” wrote one music critic of that 1980 concert. But “it seemed to work,” he concluded.

“I enjoy showing how the lines blur,” said Nero, who was born Bernard Nierow, but whose name was changed by his agent and recording label. “Rachmaninoff, to me, influenced every jazz pianist who came along.”

The charm of the presentation, the Nero touch, has a lot to do with making a success of unlikely repertoire bedfellows. Nero carries on with members of the audience. He contextualizes in a way that makes an audience that might not know classical music feel a warm hand bringing them along.

“Last year I did Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, and the concept of this concert had nothing to do with Brahms or Academic or Festival. I gave them the background on it, that Brahms wrote it when he got roped into accepting an honorary degree. I joked with them that it was from Trenton State. And I told them the story about how he got back at them by using three drinking songs in it. I looked up the lyrics and it was pretty bawdy.”

His connection with audiences goes both ways. After a recent concert in Baltimore, about 200 fans lined up to greet Nero, Hamilton says.

“I don’t think there’s a better example of audience engagement in the arts right now,” he said. Museums, orchestras and theaters see their future less in mass marketing and more in establishing personal relationships with patrons. “Peter has been there for years,” Hamilton says.

Nero spends a tremendous amount of time talking to listeners, asking what they liked, learning who they are, getting inside their heads. At one concert, he could have told the audience the orchestra would be playing the “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli. But instead he told them it started with “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and ended with the music from a toothpaste commercial airing at the time.

Lightbulbs went on.

In order to get classical works in the ears of his audiences, Nero doesn’t mind taking shortcuts that would make classical’s orthodox element (which is most of it) jump out of their skin. He not only does the Grieg Piano Concerto in one movement, he does a movement from a Rachmaninoff symphony with big cuts.

Then again, maybe it’s not the classical purists he needs to worry about.

“I did an arrangement that mixed the 1812 Overture and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ Somebody called and said, ‘How could you do that to “Over the Rainbow” ‘?”

Nero doesn’t kid himself that introducing classics to a pops audience will win subscribers for the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s just about playing the music he likes, he says. “It has to be a combination of things you put in their laps and things that are a challenge, because if it’s not a challenge, they’re going to get bored.”

To Nero, all music is created equal, regardless of the genre. Absence of a qualitative hierarchy in music is a popular belief now, but Nero has always lived it. His recordings – starting in 1961 when RCA signed him to 24 albums over eight years – are a fascinating exercise in time travel.

On the album Love Songs for a Rainy Day, Nero is a romantic cocktail pianist. Peter Nero’s Greatest Hits is a heady flashback to the ’70s, with a theme from Summer of ’42 sporting swellegant strings, harp glissandi, a melancholy English horn, and eerie distant voices. The harpsichord-infused theme from Love Story has all the sad, tinny poignancy of a Lucite tabletop music box.

He can be Liberace, or George Shearing. Gamble and Huff, or Rodgers and Hart.

Nero has the credentials to be anything he wants. He studied at New York’s High School of Music and Art, and took lessons at Juilliard on Saturdays. He earned a B.A. at Brooklyn College – alma mater of both his Ukrainian Jewish father and his Jewish mother, whose parents emigrated from the island of Rhodes – but studied privately with esteemed piano pedagogues Abram Chasins and Chasins’ wife, Constance Keene.

Nero says his parents weren’t musical, but knew enough to buy him a good piano. “When I was 11, they bought me a used Steinway Model O. It was $1,100, which was a lot of money back then. It was the only time they borrowed money.”

He played the popular children’s talent shows of the 1950s – incubators for much of the entertainment industry’s talent for decades after – and came to the attention of Paul Whiteman, with whom he toured for several years. He had his own trio at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, returned to New York to play intermission piano at the Hickory House, and was hired by Jilly’s, the fabled 52d Street saloon that was a hangout for Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and their circle. He spent two important years there developing his jazz chops with the encouragement of its colorful owner, Jilly Rizzo.

It was the deal with RCA that spread his sound far and wide. And then, with a move to Columbia Records, he scored big in the ’70s with a Summer of ’42 single, whose sales quickly reached $1 million.

Along the way, he was married three times. First to his childhood sweetheart; they had two children. Second to a flight attendant from Alabama. There was a bit of a cultural difference, he now concedes. His current wife is Rebecca Edie, a pianist for the Philly Pops. They met on a gig and have been together for 10 years.

Nero composes and arranges, in addition to still spending a lot of time conducting. The Philly Pops post involves considerable administrative time – auditioning talent, Googling around for arrangements, assembling programs that are finalized so last-minute there’s never a printed program.

When he doesn’t play the piano at Philly Pops concerts, he says, he gets letters. There’s something very personal about the way listeners come to love the style, the touch, the sensibilities of a particular pianist.

True, too, for Nero. At some point each year, you can find this two-time Grammy winner – who has worked with Sinatra, Mel Torme and Rod Stewart – playing to small crowds in Florida retirement homes. Financially, he clearly doesn’t need that.

He does it, he says, because he misses the piano.

Ray Charles understood Nero’s place in the piano pantheon. Musing about his favorite pianists in Keyboard Magazine, he said: “Art Tatum could play anything he wanted to. . . . Of course, Oscar [Peterson] is my man. . . . I probably feel closest to Hank Jones after Oscar . . .

“And Peter Nero plays his buns off!”

(This article appeared on Sunday, December 9, 2007)

Nero Albums Re-released on CD

We are happy to announce that some of Peter’s early albums have been released on CD by BMG’s Special Products division of RCA. The first set includes Hail the Conquering Nero and New Piano in Town, and the second set includes For the Nero-Minded and Young Warm and Wonderful. Check them out at today!