Santa Rosa Pops goes live for 2021-2022
Santa Rosa Symphony Pops Series conductor Michael Berkowitz and his performers are rarin’ to go as the 2021-2022 season gets underway this fall.
Like most musical groups, the pops orchestra is returning after a long hiatus because of the pandemic. But Berkowitz said he is enthusiastic about coming back to the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and has had no trouble rounding up musicians for the upcoming four-part series.
“We’re just all really anxious and excited to get back and play and make music for everyone,” he said. “The musicians are all vaccinated and they are working hard to make sure everything comes off.”
The unflappable Berkowitz, who was undeterred by a power outage while being interviewed from his upstate New York home, said the last time he led a performance was in San Diego on March 5, 2020. Coming home, “the airport was really very empty and it was apparent something was afoot,” he recalled.
Asked if his audiences skew older because of the nostalgic bent of much of the orchestra’s musical offerings, Berkowitz said fans come from all age groups, depending on the show.
“There are only two kinds of music — good and bad,” he joked. “We try to always play good music.”
The season starts Oct. 17 with “Fiedler’s Favorites,” referring to the late Arthur Fiedler, famed conductor of the Boston Pops. It will be followed by “Holly Jolly Pops,” a Bing Crosby-themed Christmas show on Dec. 12; “Return to a Galaxy Far, Far Away,” featuring the movie soundtrack music by composer John Williams, slated for Feb. 20; and “Hotel California,” a tribute to the Eagles, on April 24.
“I’ve always wanted to do an Arthur Fiedler tribute concert, so I was excited we were able to do it,” Berkowitz said.
The orchestra will play all original arrangements as performed by the Boston Pops, following in its tradition of employing “an accessible mix of light classics and popular hits” to please a variety of tastes, according to Luther Burbank center’s online program description.
The homage to Fiedler’s 50 years as conductor will feature Grammy award-winning jazz pianist Bill Cunliffe playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” as well as “Music and the Mirror,” composed by Marvin Hamlisch, whom Berkowitz toured with as a music director for several years. Cunliffe also will play a Frank Loesser jazz piano piece called “If I Were A Bell,” featuring a drum solo by Berkowitz.
Cunliffe, speaking from his Studio City home, rued the fact that so many symphony pops orchestra programs are now devoid of classical music. The original point of the pops series tradition was to draw in fans of more contemporary works with a mix of well-known classical and popular songs.
“I think the audience for orchestral music is changing,” said Cunliffe, who is a professor of music and coordinator of jazz studies at Cal State University, Fullerton. “A lot of the pop concerts are music from Broadway to Fleetwood Mac, so there’s no classical music in them.”
The Andover, Massachusetts, native said he grew up watching Fiedler because his dad loved the Boston Pops.
Cunliffe said the program planned for the Santa Rosa audience “is pretty great” because much of the music has classical origins. There are excerpts from Bizet’s “Carmen,” one of the most frequently performed operas; as well as “Seventy-Six Trombones;” “Jalousie;” Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter;” “Strike Up the Band;” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.”
Cunliffe, who was a pianist and arranger with the Buddy Rich Big Band for two years, had the chance to play with Frank Sinatra. He said he got the opportunity when Sinatra required an electric piano to to perform “LA is My Lady” from a 1984 Quincy Jones album.
“They said, ‘That kid back there in Buddy Rich’s band plays electric piano,’” he said. “So they brought me out. I never really talked to Frank Sinatra; I just played in the back and shut up. So he paid for us to go all over the world with him as he performed.”
Cunliffe’s latest release, which came out in February, is “Trio,” featuring three veteran jazz virtuosos joining together for the first time. Cunliffe, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta recorded “a high-spirited, vigorously swinging standard session,” according to the online description.
Cunliffe said he’s happily anticipating the Pops Series show and will drive up from Southern California because “I’m not flying yet,” due to the pandemic.
After “Fiedler’s Favorites,” next up will be the annual holiday concert, “Holly Jolly Pops.” This year’s theme is a tribute to Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters, featuring singer D. Scott Eads and the Swing Dolls. The orchestra will play arrangements by Fred Waring of “White Christmas” and other Crosby hits, courtesy of Waring’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.
“Bing Crosby is ‘Mr. Christmas’ to many people,” Berkowitz said. “This will be a Bing Crosby extravaganza.”
Kara Freeman, member and co-owner of the Swing Dolls with Andrea Lee Davis, might be one of the happiest performers to get back to the business of entertaining.
Having to cancel or reschedule the group’s full lineup of gigs in 2020 was “very discouraging,” said Freeman, who lives in Ventura County. “We did a few things here and there. We work for ourselves, so it’s good and bad. We’re used to hustling, but really there was nothing left to hustle for.”
Entertaining in the nostalgic ’40s and ’50s Big Band style is “a give-and-take with the audience,” Freeman said. “We really want to brighten people’s lives.”
The Southern California-based Swing Dolls’ bread and butter is singing at military-related events. But the group is trying to grow the winter holidays part of their business, she said.
Freeman said she and her fellow singers, which include singer-songwriter Eads and Samantha Kate Mills, are looking forward to working with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Berkowitz for the first time.
“We always like performing with a band — the bigger the better,” she said. “There’s nothing quite like that energy. Maybe Christmas this year can be a special occasion where everyone will be in high spirits.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at email@example.com.
Windsor and Cloverdale, The Press Democrat
As someone who grew up in a small town, I enjoy covering what's happening in Windsor and Cloverdale, which are growing in their own unique ways. I delve into issues by getting to know people and finding out what’s going on in the community. I also pay attention to animal welfare and other issues that affect Sonoma County.