Pop star

The Baltimore Sun

We leave no garish moment unturned," Jack Everly says, as he surveys the gold glitter curtain on the back wall of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the faux-neon light strip flashing pink along the rim of the stage.

Out in the lobby, Everly, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's principal pops conductor, looks over the gaming tables that have been brought in to add extra atmosphere for the "Pops Goes Vegas" show.

"Part of me is enjoying this enormously, and another part of me goes, 'Oh, dear, have we gone too far?'" he says. "Then I think, 'No.' Well, OK, there's a few chorus girls, and we have a Liberace impersonator. But it's all tongue-in-cheek. It's a symphonic Carol Burnett sketch. And we're playing very solid music of this genre."

Solid music and showbiz sparkle - that pretty much sums up the approach that Everly has taken since he was appointed to the pops post, starting in the 2003-2004 season. And the success of that approach with BSO musicians and audiences explains why Everly was offered a third three-year contract, which will keep him here through the 2011-2012 season. He signed it Friday.

"They had a lot of other conductors come in here after Marvin Hamlisch left the job" in 2000, the Indiana-born and -based Everly says. "In 2003, the musicians and the management at that time honored me with a commitment that said 'trust,' and that means a lot to an artist. At the very beginning, I sensed from the musicians a feeling of 'We get this.' I know I sound like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but we actually have a good time."

Everly, 55, has survived various changes at the BSO since he started - the hiring of a new music director, Marin Alsop; major shakeups in administration; financial hurdles. "It's been a challenge to stay the course with all the stuff going on around you," he says. "The constant, I'm happy to say, has been the musicianship and the audience. If you don't maintain those two things in tandem, you're out of luck."

The numbers reveal just how well Everly's luck is holding out.

There has been a 20 percent increase in sold tickets to SuperPops concerts in Baltimore this season over last, with average capacity per concert advancing from 63 percent to 76 percent at Meyerhoff, reports Eileen Andrews Jackson, BSO vice president of public relations and community affairs. The situation is also rosy at the Music Center at Strathmore, where sales of pops subscriptions increased 34 percent this season.

And three weeks into the new subscription campaign for next season, sales are up 40 percent at Meyerhoff, 128 percent at Strathmore, over the same point last year (and Strathmore subscriptions aren't part of the BSO's $25-per-ticket plan offered in Baltimore).

"This is very early in the campaign to be making a final assessment, but if [sales] continue at this pace, 2008-2009 will be one of the strongest SuperPops series in recent BSO history," Jackson says.

The pops craze in this country can be traced all the way back to 1885, when the Boston Pops was formed out of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to reach a wider public with lighter classical fare. Today, most orchestras rely on some kind of pops programming to broaden their audience base and generate additional revenue.

There's yet another sign of steady progress during Everly's BSO tenure. The annual "Holiday Spectacular" that he devised, featuring the now famous tap-dancing Santas, will add still more performances next season at Meyerhoff, growing to 14 next December, up from nine the first year, and 12 in 2007.

The concept of that Christmastime extravaganza originated, like the "Pops Goes Vegas" show that wrapped up last weekend and other large-scale projects, at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where Everly is also principal pops conductor, as well as musical adviser of the Symphonic Pops Consortium. That division of the Indianapolis Symphony generates products in association with several other organizations around the country.

"They have 20 years of experience in Indianapolis with 'Yuletide Celebration' [its name there], which makes it easy to produce our big shows there first," Everly says. "They have the facilities, the time commitment and the staff."

Not that Baltimore only gets pre-packaged productions. "Many things don't arrive in the box from Indianapolis," Everly says. "One thing unique to the 'Holiday Spectacular' is the dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts, who are impeccable. They're a highlight of our community, let alone a highlight of our show, and I'm so glad to have them be a part."

Whether working on that seasonal offering or any of the other four programs he conducts here each season, Everly tries "to keep it fresh in the perception of our audience," he says. "If you are doing another Broadway evening, how do you make it different? You don't want to hear in the audience, 'Grab your coat, Martha, and head for the parking lot. They're just going to do another song.'"

Everly routinely covers the popular waterfront when it comes to repertoire, anything from vintage operetta to the current cirque craze (sure enough, "Cirque de la Symphonie" is slated for next season).

"The challenge is to strike a balance and, hopefully, stay one step ahead of your audience," the conductor says. "I've felt the cold shoulder sometimes because of what I programmed. When that happens, I criticize myself, and wonder if it was how I approached it. It's up to me to create a situation where they will buy it."

Everly sometimes creates that situation in extra-musical ways.

"Jack cares about the entire experience," says BSO vice president and general manager Kendra Whitlock Ingram, "The Vegas show was a really good example of it, with the fake casino and showgirls walking around in the lobby. At the sci-fi show we did earlier, he had laser lights moving in the hall. Jack wants people to have a great time from the moment they walk in."

Ingram, who has worked for other orchestras with pops series, sees another unusual quality in Everly.

"I've seen pops concerts where there's a guest star singing and the orchestra is just playing whole notes. Jack won't ever let that happen," she says. "His charts [the music on the players' stands] are incredible, whether he does the arrangements or not. Jack likes to showcase the orchestra as the star."

BSO musicians appreciate that attention.

"The people on that stage are racehorses who want to run," says Hampton Childress, associate principal bass. "They want to feel challenged, and Jack is a very challenging guy, very meticulous in rehearsal. And he's one of the few pops conductors who is expressive in his work. That's what we thrive on. I find that most pops conductors are personalities first and musicians second. Jack has both of those assets in spades. When we play a concert with him, everyone walks out feeling good."

Traditionally, pops crowds skew just as old as classical ones, an issue Everly tries to address. A show that will soon be given in Indianapolis, and next season in Baltimore, focuses on the music of Billy Joel (sung by Michael Cavanaugh). "That means a sudden lowering of the normal age bracket," says Everly, who notes that the Indianapolis performances quickly sold out. "You will change the demographic of the hall depending on what you perform."

Next season's lineup includes a salute to the disco-crazed '70s, including music by the Bee Gees, ABBA - "and a touch of the Village People," Everly says. "How could we leave out that? The musicians have already asked me if they can dress for it, like they did when we had our '50s show. I'm going to take them up on that."


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