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Live Reviews

Peter Nero and the Philly Pops Celebrate the Music of the “Greatest Generation”

By Published: April 16, 2010
The music went forward with Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn's "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and the Glenn Miller arrangement, featuring the voices of Tex Beneke and the Modernaires, of "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Throughout these homages—to Miller and Harry James, in particular—the Pops regulars, notably trumpeters Ken Brader and Bob Gravener, and saxophonists Kerber, Joe Rotella, and Greg Riley, delivered rousing solos in the styles of the big band era. The set concluded with a suite from the box-office busting Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma.

The supplemental rhythm section of bassist Michael Barnett and drummer George Mazzeo provided superb driving force throughout. Considering that there were full percussion and double bass sections in the orchestra, the fact that Barnett and Mazzeo shone through was no easy accomplishment, and was partly due to Nero's outstanding "crossover" arrangements which, along with the musicians, mark the Philly Pops as arguably the best pops ensemble on the planet today.

Following the Intermission, the Pops performed a straight medley of songs from the war years. "And the Angels Sing" featured a celebratory trumpet solo by Brader. Roberts seamlessly segued from "I Had the Craziest Dream" into "You Made Me Love You." The "Andrews Sisters" rollicked "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" with a Bette Midler accent, and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" featured a duet by Roberts and bassist Barnett serving as cameo vocalist. "I'll Walk Alone" (sung by Clint Eastwood in his film, Songs of Our Fathers) was followed by a series of songs about the end of the war: "Sentimental Journey," immortalized by Doris Day, "The White Cliffs of Dover," and "When the Lights Go On All Over the World," echoing the quiet joy mixed with sadness of the end of the war, when the troops were glad to come home and reunite with their loved ones but saddened by the sobering memories of war.

The concert concluded with rousing renditions of the anthems of each of the Armed Forces and with Mayor Michael Nutter as the surprise conductor of the "Philly Pops Clap Song," even as the Mayor is in the midst of dealing with his own "war," namely the flash mobs of rowdy youth in the South Street district of the city.

The Philly Pops, always top of the line, was at its very best on this occasion. (Thanks to Nero's tireless efforts, this esteemed musical institution remains highly successful even as its sister Philadelphia Orchestra and the Kimmel Center itself go through financial difficulties due to the current recession.) Nero narrated and conducted superbly. Lynn Roberts combined consummate big band vocal styling with orchestral concert power and show music verve, delivering more than anyone could ask for. This was a masterfully engineered concert that saw the orchestra shine, the vocalists glow, and the "Greatest Generation" honored with the very music they inspired.

Postlude: A Social Commentary

No doubt, the concert served its purpose many times over. It recapitulated a musical era with near-perfect attention to detail in a contemporary and forceful orchestral format. The singers and musicians individually and in ensemble gave outstanding performances, a fitting testimony to the veterans and their families who, as Nero pointed out, dedicated themselves at great cost to freedom and the American way of life. It was surely deeply nostalgic for those in the audience who came of age during the war years. The concert experience was unforgettable in those terms.

At the same time, this reviewer was troubled, not by the concert which, as the foregoing should attest, was superb, but by what it indirectly communicated about our society. First of all, hardly anyone in the packed-solid audience, as best as could be seen, was under the age of 60 (the reviewer himself is 69.) This alone speaks to the isolation of the different generations of our country. DJ Bob Perkins has pointed out that his generation failed to inculcate a love of jazz in their children. "Jazz Loft Project" curator Sam Stephenson has mentioned how little we seek to learn the wisdom and knowledge of the elderly, a societal failure that goes far beyond the music. The current youth culture together with the preoccupations of the media, with its emphasis on sex, thrill-seeking, and violence, suggest that better role models are needed along with examples of a community sharing its love of country and hope for the future. The music of "The Stage Door Canteen" was itself the music of youth but had a dignity and sentimentality that often seems lacking in the popular culture of today. One wishes there were younger people in the audience to hear this music and be exposed to the core values it implies.

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