This weekend I saw Sutton Foster perform with the Cincinnati Pops, or as conductor John Morris Russell always says to the Cincinnati audience, “YOUR Cincinnati Pops!”
It was a great show. Foster is an engaging and personable performer. The Orchestra sounded great and the musicians were clearly enjoying themselves. Russell is an effusive conductor who brings energy to the theater, and had an easy rapport with both Foster and her musical director/piano player Michael Rafter.
I haven’t been to a Pops concert in years even though I subscribe to the Symphony. Technically, a subscription to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra includes support of both the Symphony and the Pops. They both use the same musicians and it is the same organization, but there is a totally different vibe at the performances.
Which got me thinking about the Pops Orchestra vs. the Symphony Orchestra.
Notice how both of them have Orchestra in the title? That doesn’t help differentiate them. That just adds to the confusion.
That bit about Russell’s effusiveness, though, begins to tell the story. There is a low level of raucousness at Pops concerts. Russell is an excitable figure on the stage inviting the audience to “give it up” for our supporting sponsors. He really can whip up applause for the Otto M. Budig Foundation.
The Symphony crowd is a bit more buttoned up. The conductor, Louis Langrée, is pleasantly humorous without being showy. He doesn’t invite the audience to cheer, he asks them so show their appreciation, wherein polite applause ensues.
The stage set-ups are totally different. The Pops stage features a brightly lit “Pops” sign (in script writing with stars above it) with running lights. The musicians all wear red blazers. Red = fun!
The Symphony works on a plain stage and they are all dressed in black. Black = serious.
The Pops always tries to be your classical music friend while the Symphony is your classical music mentor. Which is funny, because they do play some of the same music. You will hear the 1812 Overture every summer at the Pops Fourth of July concert, but you’ll hear it every couple years at the Symphony, too. Same with music from composers like Bernstein, Gershwin, Copeland, and even film composer John Williams.
So what’s the difference?
The Pops, in my head, provides an intro to classical music, which isn’t totally accurate. I just think it would be easier to move from the Pops to the Symphony rather than the reverse. The Pops offers music that is always easy to listen to. That means they mostly play popular music (hence “Pops”) arranged for a classical ear. They pander, sometimes, in smaltz, playing songs they know will grab you emotionally. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Mostly though, Pops concerts are always laid back. Families come to see the Pops. Sometimes the audience sings along. The Pops do the Christmas concert and summer concerts in County parks, for example. There’s nothing challenging happening. It’s comfort food, musically speaking.
The Symphony is a different level. They still have to play from the canon of classical music to appease the standard bearers and traditional supporters (i.e. The Money) and that’s some of the overlap to the Pops. The difference is the other works that they play. The Symphony doesn’t just play the parts of classical music everyone knows, they play the entire symphony. The pieces are generally longer. The pace of shows is different, not always going for exuberance and often sounding quite stoic. Some of the music is new and experimental. Some of it is challenging. The audience is expected to know when to applaud.
Okay, when to applaud during a multi-movement piece isn’t strictly a rule, but it is an audience convention, a culturally learned behavior. Knowing when to clap at a Symphony concert is no more complicated than knowing to scream wildly at any concert when the stage performer screams, “Hello Cincinnati.” Still, the Symphony audience abides by the convention.
There’s another difference between the Pops and the Symphony, at least in Cincinnati, and that’s the way they “use” guest performers.
With the Pops, the performer tends to be around for the entire show. When you see the show advertised as “Sutton Foster with the Cincinnati Pops,” you can expect her to be on stage for most of the show. The music the Orchestra plays when the featured performed isn’t on stage is meant to compliment the performance, or set the mood.
The Symphony doesn’t work like that. You should not expect the featured performer to be on stage for the bulk of the performance. Apparently this is a contentious point with some Symphony audience members. If you come to the Symphony to see a performer, and find out he or she is only on stage for less than 25% of the time, you can see why you might feel duped. And I’m sorry to put it that way, because the Symphony is not pulling a fast one, this is just the way classical music evenings are put together. The music the guest performs is meant to spotlight their virtuosity and, if the piece is right, it gets to the essence of a performer’s talent. Anyway, if you come to see the featured performed and stay for the rest of the show, you still come out all right.
Most important, from my hometown perspective, Pops or Symphony, Cincinnati is lucky to have both. Whether you wear your classical music wrapped up in a comfy blanket or buttoned up in a fancy jacket, it’s all still YOUR Cincinnati Pops/Symphony Orchestra.