Pops has a big future in our concert halls

There’s a growing audience for the symphony sound backing up our favourite pop artists in performance.

Alexander Mickelthwate Random Notes
Alexander Mickelthwate
Random Notes

Dear Readers,

Today pops concerts and symphony orchestras fit hand in hand, but if you think back you may remember a time when that was a very strange idea. The symphony performed the classics and no conductor dared bridge the gap to popular music. Now people love the idea of big name acts from across the popular music spectrum performing with an orchestra. In December we had Randy Bachman for an amazing three-night run. Our Elvis show was a great hit with a quartet of Broadway singers bringing his music to life. And we just had a remarkable Simon & Garfunkel Tribute duo perform with us.

A ‘light classics’ start
However, if you had been there at the beginning you would hardly recognize what we call “pops” today. Some of you will remember the days of conductor Victor Feldbrill. He initiated the first version of the pops at the WSO with “light classics” concerts in 1958. Those Sunday afternoon concerts at the Winnipeg Auditorium quickly evolved into “Fanfare Concerts” with big names like Arthur Fiedler, José Iturbi, André Kostalenetz and a crowd favorite, Mitch Miller. These conductors all brought a special flare to concerts.

Over the last 10 years there has been quite a shift in pops programming at the WSO plus the addition of another series, SoundBytes. As “pops” has come to focus on symphonic experiences of popular music, often with major stars, SoundBytes was created to fill a gap – an unfulfilled desire for concerts that include lighter classical and jazz music.

Symphonic soundtrack

Gene Kelly in a scene from Dancing in the Rain. The WSO performs the soundtrack music live to accompany the movie March 13 to 15. (Photo courtesy of The Kobal Collection / MGM.)
Gene Kelly in a scene from Dancing in the Rain. The WSO performs the soundtrack music live to accompany the movie March 13 to 15. (Photo courtesy of The Kobal Collection / MGM.)

Coming up this spring are two more pops shows that travel back to another period of popular music. In March we will present Gene Kelly’s classic film Singin’ in the Rain with the WSO performing the soundtrack live underneath. Films with live soundtrack are becoming incredibly popular with our audiences and you can expect to see more in the coming years. And then in April we have The Rat Pack is Back! featuring an incredible quartet of singers who bring to life Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop.

Pops programming is going to continue to grow in the coming years. It seems to connect with a growing audience who love to hear the full Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra sound with their favourite popular artists. Interestingly, a lot of this audience also love coming to classical concerts. This fact might just reflect how broad our musical tastes have become in 2015.

See you at the Concert Hall!


Alexander Mickelthwate is music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

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