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The TSO’s new pops conductor literally sees musical notes dancing before his eyes

“Pops” music is a hybrid beast, a bridge between classical and popular musical styles that can attract new audiences to symphony halls in desperate need of fresh blood. To some, it represents a dilution of the “serious” classical repertoire, but to others, including Steven Reineke, the newly appointed principal pops conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, it’s a thrilling way to add symphonic weight to mainstream music — and get show tunes into Roy Thomson Hall.

Although he has played in everything from rock and folk bands to Dixieland combos, Reineke always comes back to orchestral music. “It’s the palette of colours and sounds that a symphony orchestra has,” he says. “And the power. There’s nothing like having 40 string players backing you up, plus a great brass and percussion and wind section. And you’re able to combine anything with it. It’s great.”

“I have a difficult time driving in cars. I have to listen to talk radio, because if music is on, I see what it looks like on the page.”

Under Reineke’s direction, the TSO will present five pops concerts as part of its 2012/13 season: an evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classics, a collection of music played in James Bond movies and a romance-themed night of love songs, as well as a Christmas concert and a screening of West Side Story with live orchestral accompaniment, plus a bonus holiday show with the Barenaked Ladies. By hiring the ebullient Reineke, a composer and conductor who is also the music director of the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall and principal pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the TSO is taking a step toward diversifying its aging audience and putting a spotlight on its more accessible offerings.

“It’s not that we’re trying to fix anything that’s broken; we’re just trying to build on what’s already there,” says Reineke. “And it’s nice to put a face with that. I want to bridge the gap between the audience and the orchestra and tear down some barriers — be the face of the pops here and have a rapport with the audience. I want to be part of the community and I want the orchestra to be part of the community. We have an incredible resource in this city that needs to continue to thrive.”

Reineke has been obsessed with music since his childhood in small-town Ohio, where he played guitar and trumpet and “air-conducted” whatever he was listening to in his bedroom. “I always had music going through my head,” he says. “First it was music I’d heard on the radio, and I’d sit at the piano and figure it out by ear. When I was 13 or 14 it started to become music I’d never heard before — something new, and I didn’t know where it was coming from. That’s when I began composing.”

Constantly hearing music can be distracting, though, especially when you literally see notes and treble clefs dancing around in your head. “I have a difficult time driving in cars,” Reineke acknowledges. “I have to listen to talk radio, because if music is on, I see what it looks like on the page — not just where the notes are, but what the viola players and the third trombone are doing. I thought everybody in music did that, but a teacher in college convinced me that it was a bit of a gift. And that was the point when I realized I had to pay attention to it, and figure out what to do with it.”

Which leads back to his love for show tunes and his Broadway-heavy series of concerts with the TSO. Reinke says he has no idea  if there is a show-tune gene. “I don’t know that there’s anything genetically predisposed in loving Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland. I have no idea. And that stereotype isn’t completely true, but it’s true a lot, that’s for sure.”

Reineke says he first came out to himself, just before leaving for college. “It was a conversation I had with myself in the bathroom mirror,” he recalls. “It was a cathartic moment, a life-changing moment. I always knew, but it was a matter of finally being able to say the words out loud.” At collage he earned degrees in trumpet performance and musical composition, but when famed Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel took him under his wing in 1995, Reineke found his niche. He began guest conducting for various orchestras, including the TSO, as well as writing and arranging music for the Cincinnati Pops. Eventually, his career started to take off. First the Modesto Symphony in California offered him a job as pops conductor; the Long Beach Orchestra followed, then the New York Pops lured him east, and soon he was conducting all over the US. “I can’t believe how fast it’s happened,” he says. “I’m conducting all these terrific orchestras, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”

Reineke lives in New York, in an apartment appealingly close to Broadway, from where he can easily travel to his jobs in Toronto and Washington. As a fan of classic Broadway shows, he says he’s excited about the TSO’s Rodgers and Hammerstein show this month, and he’s looking forward to the major challenge of conducting the orchestra for the West Side Story screening. ”It’s a lot of work to synch it up with the movie,” he says. “It’s not like working with a live person, where you can give and take and breathe together and watch each other; we have to be right on the mark. I’ve got some technology to help me, but I have to time things pretty precisely. It’s a terrific score, though, and to watch it come alive is amazing. I’ve done The Wizard of Oz before, and that’s even harder. Those darn Munchkins will just not sing in time!”

The tops of The pops

Name a recording to impress a connoisseur.
Ella in Berlin. This is Ella at her peak. Her rendition of “Mack the Knife” has become a classic, not just in her interpretation and inherent sense of swing, but she forgets the lyrics and improvises on the spot. Ella was one of a kind.

Your favourite movie soundtrack?
Without a doubt, it’s West Side Story with a score by Leonard Bernstein. I’m conducting the score live with the TSO for the Pops series, alongside the film, in May. I can’t wait.

Fave rock band?
I’m happy that No Doubt with Gwen Stefani is back together, although I must say I’m a sucker for classic rock including bands like Journey, Styx and of course the Beatles.

Best music for a first date?
This should be really romantic, so C’Est Si Bon by French chanteuse Arielle Dombasle.

Best music to get in the mood?
In the mood for what!? If it’s what I think you’re implying, then Barry White, of course.

Three songs you’re listening to right now?
“Improvisation (Live)” with Paula Morelenbaum from Casa (the whole album is terrific), “Si Tu Savais” by Stephane Wrembel, and “U Plavu Zoru” by Pink Martini.

Fave concert from the TSO’s upcoming season that you aren’t conducting?
I love Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and TSO music director Peter Oundjian is doing it in June.

Your dream collaborator?
I’d love to work with Dolly Parton. She’s a fantastic singer/songwriter, a consummate entertainer, such a musical legend.

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING $29-$110. 8pm. Tue, Oct 9 & 10. 2pm. Oct 10. Roy Thomson Hall. 60 Simcoe St. (416) 598-3375. tso.ca.