Steven Reineke puts the pop in Pops
For Steven Reineke, conducting The New York Pops at its Carnegie Hall home is like “when I make a playlist on my iPod and get to play it for 3,000 people. I get to be a DJ essentially.”
The Pops’ music director is preparing for “Some Enchanting Evening: The Music of Rodgers and Hammerstein,” the star-studded Oct. 12 season opener. The night will feature the orchestra with such guest artists as Aaron Lazar of Broadway’s “Mamma Mia!” and Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot, who co-starred in the acclaimed Lincoln Center production of “South Pacific.”
“This is the 30th season of The New York Pops and it’ll be my fourth season with them so I’ve got three years down and we’ve already extended my contract, which will go through 2016,” Reineke says, sitting in the living room of the sleek Hell’s Kitchen corner apartment he’s called home for the past three years. He shares the luxe pad with his boyfriend, Eric, who works in the fashion industry. When Eric walks through the door, Reineke’s face glows.
In the sun-dappled room, floor-to-ceiling windows take up two full walls, and the view below, impeded only by a black Yamaha piano, reveals the heart of the bustling Theater District, where many of Reineke’s high-profile friends work. Some of those stars also stop by this avid cook’s apartment for his schnitzel – that is, when he’s not busy traveling and juggling several positions.
“My full-time jobs are music director of The New York Pops. I’ll be starting my second season as the principal pops conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C. at the Kennedy Center and then also in October I begin full-time in my first season as the newly appointed principal pops conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. They created this position for me and it’s really neat because I’ve been guest-conducting the Toronto Symphony for 14 years. It’s like we’ve been dating a long time and just got married,” he says with a laugh, adding that he just finished two contracts with orchestras in California.
“The travel just got to be so much and now everything is on the same time zone and within a three-hour commute to each place. It’s a lot still, because these are three really big programs,” he says, noting that, hands down, fundraising in this economic climate for the nonprofit New York Pops is “easily the greatest challenge of my job.”
Courting the edge
Reineke relishes his job and strives to be an entertaining host.
“Carnegie Hall is wonderful, because they’ve really trusted us and they’ve not had to put a round peg in a square hole. …We get to plan the overall season and who the guest artists are going to be and then when it comes down to each concert, I pick every selection.
“I like to stay as current as we can. Certain venues allow that to happen better, like when we go play SummerStage in Central Park. At Carnegie Hall, we keep it really classy, but we do some interesting things and use some young talent, which is great and helps a lot….
“Last year we did a ‘Mad Men’-inspired concert with (actor-singer) Cheyenne Jackson. It was a very stylish evening that appealed across a larger demographic and age group. We have a lot of patrons who are older who have been coming for a long time, and they love to hear the orchestra. They love the music we play. They also have money and they have a schedule and can subscribe for a whole season and know that they can make those six dates. Getting younger people to do that is a different ballgame…. They come, but they don’t plan it so far out,” Reineke says with understanding.
A longtime classical and popular music lover, Reineke studied trumpet and musical composition.
“My music is very cinematic and has a big scope to it.” It’s contemporary he says, but laughingly interjects, “I can’t stand that atonal stuff.”
His role as a conductor and music director was pleasantly unexpected.
“I didn’t plan on being a conductor. It just happened.”
Practice, practice …
It has, however, been his ticket to Carnegie Hall. The venue, he says, “is so special to perform in. …Carnegie Hall has been drawing me to it ever since I was a kid.
“I grew up in Ohio in a little town called Tipp City – T-I-P-P, after Tippecanoe, and it’s about 20 miles north of Dayton, Ohio. That was my old stomping ground. …We had a modest upbringing and it was a great place to live. I didn’t grow up on a farm. It wasn’t quite that rural, but it was very much like Mayberry,” he says, referring to the cozy fictional setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Reineke is the youngest of three boys. His mother was a secretary at his elementary school and his father was a banker.
“But he was a guitar player on the side, just for fun, acoustic. He was a folk guy. And from the time I can first remember until the time I was maybe 12 or 13, just about every night he would sit on the edge of my bed with his guitar and sing me to sleep. He would play Peter, Paul and Mary and John Denver,” he says, smiling.
Reineke jokes that he was “never a shy kid” and began playing the trumpet in the Dayton Youth Symphony.
“I was a senior in high school, 17 years old, and the Dayton Youth Symphony was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in a youth music festival,” he says, winking to let you know that this was the catalyst for his career.
“It was my first-ever time in New York City and my first time in Carnegie Hall. I remember going in there, sitting on the stage; and it was just electric. Literally you can feel something in the air that’s palpable and that was amazing for a young kid and I’ll never forget it.
“And then as my career progressed, I started to write music as a composer and an arranger. …I write music that is melodies and that I want people to enjoy listening to. I actually studied film music in Los Angeles for a couple of years and I wanted to be a film composer like the masterful John Williams.
“But then I got hired at the Cincinnati Pops by that guy,” Reineke says, pointing to a framed photo atop his piano, “Erich Kunzel, the founder and conductor of the Cincinnati Pops. …He was my great teacher and he was a legend in the pops world,” Reineke adds before revealing that Kunzel passed away the day he moved to New York.
“I became (Kunzel’s) arranger and composer for about 15 years. And we would come and bring the Cincinnati Orchestra here and play at Carnegie Hall every two years. So I got to then sit in the audience and hear my original compositions played there and I was in my 20s then.”
“So I played on the stage at Carnegie as a kid, then I hear my own music played there and I thought, gosh, the next thing I need to do – I don’t know how it’ll ever happen – but maybe I can conduct a concert here sometime.”
“And it was almost 20 years to the day in 2008 when I made my debut with The New York Pops as a conductor. The place just kept drawing me back and now it’s my permanent home. It’s so crazy and I love it. I mean, right now they have scaffolding up and they have all the photos of the new season, and just the other day, I was walking by it and there’s my big ugly mug up there on Seventh Avenue.
“And as a kid from small town Ohio, I still get goose bumps and think, What? That’s really weird. What’s my face doing up at Carnegie Hall?” He chuckles, adding, “It’s quite humbling.”