This season, the Houston Symphony welcomes its dynamic new Principal POPS Conductor, Steven Reineke. In addition to his new post in Houston, this in-demand conductor is also the Music Director of The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Principal Pops Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Get to know the charming new maestro and emcee of our BBVA Compass POPS Series in this exclusive interview.
Houston Symphony: What inspired you to become a pops conductor? When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
Steven Reineke: I didn’t consider being a pops conductor (or any conductor for that matter) until my mid-20s. I started out wanting to be a professional trumpet player, but then my love of composition took over, and I focused on becoming a film music composer in Los Angeles for a few years. My path started to become clearer for me when I became Erich Kunzel’s assistant at the Cincinnati Pops in 1995. Although I was serving as the principal composer and arranger for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, I began conducting lessons with Maestro Kunzel within my first few years of working with him. I guess you could say that is when I caught a serious bug to become a conductor and to focus on popular music. I love the wide array of musical styles Pops offers, and I certainly love the showmanship and entertainment aspect of the job. By age 27 or so, I knew I had found my true calling in life.
HS: What was the first big break in your career?
SR: It’s so hard to pinpoint just one moment that I would consider my “big break.” One could be when I was hired by Maestro Carmon DeLeone (Music Director of the Cincinnati Ballet) to orchestrate his full length ballet version of Peter Pan. Carmon composed the music but asked me to do the orchestrations. This garnered the attention of Erich Kunzel which helped me land the job as his assistant. Another could be when I had to step in at a moment’s notice to conduct my first full orchestra concert when Maestro Kunzel had fallen ill. Yet another would be when the Modesto Symphony created the position of Principal Pops Conductor and offered me my first full time job as a conductor of an orchestra. I don’t believe there is truly one magical moment but a series of fortuitous events that lead a person to success.
HS: So far, what have been some of your most memorable concerts as a conductor?
SR: One of my favorite concerts of all time was a family concert we created for The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, The Musical World of Jim Henson. I shared the stage with Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppets, all while being heckled incessantly by the curmudgeonly Waldorf and Statler from their box seats in Carnegie Hall.
Another concert I’m very proud of was a recreation of Marvin Gaye’s iconic album What’s Going On that featured John Legend. In between songs, we incorporated commentary and poetry by teenagers of all backgrounds from around the country, juxtaposing their views on “what’s going on” now with Marvin Gaye’s brilliant lyrics and music of the ’60s and early ’70s. I helped create that show for performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. with our National Symphony Orchestra, and we subsequently performed it at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic.
HS: While this will be your first season as Principal POPS Conductor, you have already appeared with the Houston Symphony many times. What have been your impressions of Houston so far?
SR: My biggest draw to accept the position was the incredible talent and musicianship of the orchestra, plus the fact that the players are such nice people who are very easy to work with. I’ve also made some friends outside the orchestra that I always enjoy seeing when I’m in town.
HS: In addition to being a conductor, you are also a widely-performed composer and arranger. How does your experience as a composer and arranger inform your work as a conductor?
SR: Orchestrations and arrangements in the symphonic pops genre are one of the most important keys to a successful concert. Even the casual listener can hear the difference between an ordinary arrangement and one that really makes the music pop. My background allows me to determine very quickly what arrangements are the best, and I also look forward to creating many of my own special arrangements and compositions for the Houston Symphony.
HS: As our new Principal POPS Conductor, what do you hope to bring to the Houston Symphony’s BBVA Compass POPS Series?
SR: I’m looking forward to some incredibly entertaining and interesting programming and guest artists. I hope to reach out to the greater Houston community and expand our audience with a diverse mix of fun music. It’s also very important to me to continually raise the bar of excellence for the orchestra. The bottom line is that I want us all to have a lot of fun at each show and to be amazed at how incredible our magnificent Houston Symphony is.
HS: You’ve decided to begin your first season as Principal Pops Conductor with Ella at 100—a musical celebration of Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday. Why begin with Ella?
SR: I have often been asked in interviews “Who haven’t you worked with as a guest artist that you would like to work with?” Invariably, I throw them off with my answer of Ella Fitzgerald. I’m not often star-struck anymore, but I would give just about anything to have met Ella or to have seen her perform. She is my personal favorite “girl singer” of all time. When I’m cooking dinner or having a party at my place, I almost always put on Ella as my background soundtrack. Not only was she one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, male or female, but her repertoire is full of extraordinary songs. There is so much more I want to say about Miss Ella, but I’ll save that for the concert.
HS: What are some of the other BBVA Compass POPS concerts Houston audiences can look forward to this season?
SR: I must say that the entire series is terrific—you won’t want to miss anything! To take one example, I’m very excited about November’s Broadway Today program, which I’ve done at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center to rave reviews. It will feature a dear friend of mine named Betsy Wolfe, who is currently starring in the hit musical Waitress on Broadway. It contains some of the biggest hit Broadway songs of the past 30 years all the way up to today, including a few surprises—but you’ll have to be there to witness them.
I’m also really looking forward to our Very Merry Pops concerts this year, as I’m creating a new show with the brilliant Megan Hilty based on her incredible holiday album. Another highlight will be a show called One Hit Wonders with the inimitable Storm Large as guest vocalist. I’ve been wanting to create this show for years, and I’m so happy to finally debut it in Houston.
Don’t miss Steven Reineke at Ella at 100 September 1, 2 & 3. Get tickets and more info here.