Programming the Milwaukee Symphony’s 2018.19 Pops season is a matter of giving audiences what they want.
“We’re interested in providing something for everyone,” said Mark Niehaus, the symphony’s executive director. “By the very name, it has to be popular.” The coming season, which the MSO announced last week, will be a mixture of categories known and liked by local audiences -- Broadway, Hollywood, holidays, and movie soundtracks.
The MSO has been without a principal pops conductor since Marvin Hamlisch died in 2012, and in that absence, the season is planned by Niehaus and Susan Loris, executive vice president for institutional advancement.
One highlight of the next season will be the live soundtrack to The Empire Strikes Back in July of 2019, about a year after the symphony performs Star Wars: A New Hope. Niehaus said that the rights to perform those popular films recently became available, and “one could use the Force to assume that Return of the Jedi will be next,” in 2020. But that scheduling “is not up to us. It’s the higher-ups at Disney,” who want to be sure that any such special events do not coincide too closely with the release of new Star Wars movies.
Associate Conductor Yaniv Dinur, who will lead this year’s and next year’s Star Wars concerts, did not know the movies when he was growing up in Israel. When he came to the University of Michigan as a graduate student, “my friends were so shocked that they organized a special marathon for me,” he said. And it was only then, near the end of The Empire Strikes Back, that he learned the connection between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. “I was shocked,” he said. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Dinur will also conduct Jurassic Park and the Nat and Natalie Cole concert next May. “We love doing pops,” he said. “It gives us some variety and freshness from classical music, especially when the arrangements are good.”
The Star Wars movies are being presented at the Marcus Center, but the MSO will perform the live soundtrack to Jurassic Park at the Riverside Theater. “We have a great relationship with the Pabst and Riverside,” Niehaus said, and he expects those kinds of collaborations to continue even after the MSO begins performing in its own hall one block away in 2020. “It’s one of the most fruitful and collaborative relationships we’ve had in a long time, and it’s really important to us.”
(For the past two seasons, the MSO has performed live soundtracks to the first two Harry Potter movies under the sponsorship of the Riverside; any announcement about the third movie in the series will come from that management.)
Following the success of this season’s concert version of My Fair Lady, the symphony will present the musical Chicago next season, with a director and an ensemble of singers who tour with the piece. “We know there’s an appetite for Broadway in Milwaukee,” Niehaus said, but bringing in a pre-rehearsed ensemble is “the only way we can do it without a tremendous amount of time and effort and money.” He compares the end results to the MSO’s cycle of Mozart-da Ponte operas from recent seasons, with effective but minimal staging that lets the audience focus on the music.
The MSO’s popular Holiday Pops, presented every year in the first weekend of December, always follows a similar format, but “the conductor is what keeps it fresh,” Niehaus said. Next year that concert will be led by former MSO resident conductor Stuart Chafetz, who now has a busy career as a pops conductor.
And after last year’s Holiday Pops experience, former music director Andreas Delfs “had so much fun, and the audience had so much fun, that we asked him back,” Niehaus said. “We try things as experiments, and for Andreas it was an experiment as well. But he just loved it.” Delfs will conduct the “Golden Age of Hollywood” concert in November and the “Diva to Diva” concert in March.
Aside from presenting great music in other genres, Niehaus said that pops concerts reduce “attendance anxiety: ‘What do I wear?’ ‘When do I clap?’ People came to E.T. (this season) because they know the movie. But they walk out having seen the orchestra play live. Live music is meaningful.”