Steven Reineke – Pop! Goes the Symphony

A Coffee Date with TSO Pops Conductor Steven Reineke

Steven Reineke TSO pops
Photo by Sharon Lee

Steven Reineke, the first ever Principal Pops conductor in the Toronto Symphony’s 90 year history, took a good chunk out of his morning to chat with me over a coffee (and even helped me figure out how to record better on my iPad!). A self proclaimed “born entertainer,” he’s a delightfully bright and fluid conversationalist; his natural charm putting everyone near him at ease.

The TSO’s bold move in creating a Pops Series with its own primary conductor has some pretty hefty significance attached to it. It may not seem like a very big deal, but it’s an indication that the TSO is taking a step forward in broadening their horizons and acknowledging and embracing that there is Art Music outside of the traditional classical realm.

I mean, of course, they’ve always had a Pops series each season, but with its own director! As a young classically trained musician and a Toronto resident, I couldn’t be more pleased about this. Finally, I can bring skeptics to a symphony show and give them a good ‘HA! See? Bond. James Bond. This is stuff you love! You’ve had this on your ipod for years!’ (The James Bond concert is happening April 2nd and 3rd, 2013) The weight associated with having a series’ own director leads the newcomer to think that this is indeed an art music concert.

Steven says it better in his own words: “I think that [someone new] would be very surprised. This actually happens a lot in the cities I work in and go to: there will be younger people, many of whom  have never seen a symphony orchestra concert and they have no idea what a pops concert is. It simply means popular music. We can combine with so many different artists, and it’s very much high energy. I think they would be pleasantly surprised at how much fun they have. I really do my best to break down the barrier between the audience and the orchestra. It’s not some stuffy place where everyone has to get decked out in their finest duds pretending they’re not enjoying themselves.”

Although, that being said, you’re more than welcome to show up in tails and a top hat. The only person complaining would be the poor sucker right behind you.

And who is Steven? And why was he chosen to head up this new venture?

Steven had an atypical road to the podium, but was always involved in music. He picked up the trumped as a kid and played through college, obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Trumpet Performance. He also has this strange gift where he can visually see the music on the page from just hearing it. “As a kid, I’d go see a movie, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you the plot line, but I could play you about 70% of the music [on the piano]” Did I mention that he taught himself piano? As he was telling me about this, I found myself wondering if this was what Mozart had as well- it’s well documented that he, too, could write out a score for any piece of music after having heard it once.

I imagine this was a huge advantage in obtaining his degree in composition. To see the notes written out as they are created in your mind – I’m sure many composers would kill for that. I remember reading about Schumann locking himself up for hours with his piano trying to piece together the swirl of notes he had heard in his head.

Initially having set out to become a film composer, Steven spent two years in Los Angeles, then found himself back in his native Ohio, working for the Cincinnati Pops as the late Erich Kunzel’s protégé and “right hand man” for fifteen years.

He now heads up the New York Pops as their Artistic Director in Carnegie Hall, and is Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony in Washington D.C., and holds the same position in Toronto. In addition to this, he is on the road 35 weeks out of the year appearing as Guest Conductor all over the world.

Steven Reineke TSO Pops
Photo: Sian Richards

As a young aspiring musician, I had to take the opportunity to pick his brain and ask if he had any advice.

“My best piece of advice,” he starts, apologizing for this tidbit being trite and overused, is “find your passion. That’s the key.. and then follow your heart on that. Work hard at it. Don’t let people knock you out.”

He added to that: “Don’t be surprised if you don’t get where you want to be. You’re going to get somewhere, but it might be different.

The path just takes a lot of twists along the way. It might not take you where you set out to be, but it might be better.” He’s beaming as he explains to me that he never set out to be a conductor- it happened along the way, and he absolutely loves where it’s led him.

See for yourself at the first concert of the Pops Series, October 9th and 10th at Roy Thompson Hall, where Steven Reineke leads the TSO in a program of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. If you’re like me and learned English as a child by watching the Sound of Music twice daily for a few years, I’m sure I’ll see you there singing along.

Find the rest of the Pops Series, including a Valentines-themed program of love songs and West Side Story with live orchestra, here on the TSO’s website.