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This article was prepared for the October 27, 2004 issue of
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Peter Nero and the Philly Pops
If Peter Nero’s parents hadn’t gotten him a toy xylophone when he was
four years old, the whole history of the region’s musical picture
might be out of focus.
But Nero’s parents did present their son with the toy instrument, and
did observe how remarkably he took to it. Three years later, his
adoring grandmother watched Peter Nero as he played tunes by ear on a
relative’s piano. Soon the Brooklyn woman had convinced the relative
to give the piano to this family wunderkind.
"That’s a grandma for you!" says Nero, founding music director and
conductor of the Philly Pops. "She was right about one thing: I LOVED
playing piano then, and I still do today."
Nero and the Philly Pops perform at a benefit for the Foundation of
Morris Hall of St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center at Trenton’s War
Memorial on Saturday, October 30, at 8 p.m. a third annual return
visit for St. Lawrence, a private, not-for-profit rehabilitation
hospital in Lawrenceville.
Peter Nero would go on to study piano privately in his own Brooklyn
neighborhood, then at New York’s High School of Music and Art. His
father, a social worker, often worked three jobs to help his talented
son continue his serious music studies at Juilliard. And because his
parents believed he also needed a liberal arts education, he majored
in music at Brooklyn College, but also delved into liberal arts.
"I was definitely trained as a classical pianist, but I also felt
other stirrings, even very early in my training," says Nero. "I was
conflicted. It seemed predestined that I would be a classical pianist
– but I was also drawn to pop music and jazz."
So while Nero’s senior recital at Brooklyn College was totally
classical, he had already discovered George Shearing and Art Tatum,
two of his earliest musical influences. And when he realized that he
could no longer tolerate his first post-college day-job – selling
pianos – he took a detour into playing in New York jazz clubs.
"It was definitely better than selling those pianos, and I had the
chance to play straight jazz at the Village Vanguard, the place where
music was really happening in the late 1950’s," says Nero. Through the
vast New York music network, the young pianist landed a job on an
early TV variety show, doing arranging as well as performing.
In 1977 Peter Nero was invited to play in a pops concert with the
venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, and it was then and there that the
seeds were planted for the creation of a permanent pops orchestra in
the city. The late impresario Moe Septee, a mover and shaker in
Philadelphia, tried a test concert in 1979, and the rest is musical
history. By 1980, the concept was such a success that a subscription
series was offered, and the Philly Pops was on the cultural map.
Holding the baton – and creating arrangements that consistently won
standing ovations – was Peter Nero.
The maestro has a philosophy about music – and about access to it –
that has been a successful working formula from the start. "I believe
in variety, and our audiences seem to embrace it," says Nero, who
offers Pops audiences everything from classics and big band to rock ‘n
roll. Professional musicians, who comprise the backbone of the Pops,
can play Gershwin – or the Beatles. Doo-wop and Broadway are in this
season’s mix. "The wider the range, the happier we are," says Nero.
The performance of the Philly Pops at the October 30 benefit at the
War Memorial feature Halloween "fright music," music from films, and,
promises Nero, "lots of surprises."
Opening the concert is Time For Three, a trio of young musicians who
came together while they were students at Philadelphia’s Curtis
Institute, and have shared their passion for jazz, improvisation, and
the musical language of Hungarian and Spanish gypsies. The trio
includes violinists Zachary DePue and Nicholas Kendall and double
bassist Ranann Meyer.
For the benefit concert, Nero will be playing the fabled Peace Piano,
a Steinway designed to promote global peace and raise funds for
children in need through the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. The piano made its
official regional debut at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia on October
1, and recently has been on stage at the Kimmel Center in a
play-for-peace Perform-a-Thon involving hundreds of school children
from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
– Sally Friedman
Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, Saturday, October 30, at 8 p.m.,
at Patriot’s Theater in Trenton. The event is a benefit for the
Foundation of Morris Hall/St. Lawrence. Call 609-896-9500.
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