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L.A. Pops: wooing and wowing audiences with concerts that sparkle

It's the only orchestra in America whose concert hall is two flights down from the lobby of a hotel. It's the first full-time ``pops'' orchestra in America -- unlike those in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, which play serious classics through the fall and winter and switch to lighter fare (orchestrated pop, rock, jazz) only in the spring and summer.

It's the Los Angeles Pops orchestra, and many people in this entertainment mecca don't even know it exists.

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It has been around only nine years. But while it doesn't yet measure up to its cousins across the country in depth of repertoire, arrangement catalog, or performance tradition, it just might on musical ability alone. The majority of these 75-or-so players are full-time studio musicians, regulars on such serials as ``Love Boat'' and ``Dynasty'' as well as in movies like ``Rocky IV.'' Some are veterans from the big bands of Dorsey, Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins. Many have played with big orchestra names: Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta.

``The pool of studio musicians in L.A. is the best in the world,'' according to Michael Steinberg, former Boston Globe critic, now artistic director at the San Francisco Symphony. ``For sheer technical mastery they are unsurpassed.''

``There is no compromising in playing with the L.A. Pops,'' says Daniel Pollack, a recent opening-night piano soloist, who annually tours the finest music festivals of Europe, South America, and Asia. ``They are really excellent musicians.'' What separates this group from the front-rank pops orchestras, he says, is sheer lack of visibility; a prospective audience ``definitely exists here, but is yet to be tapped.''

A recent opening-night performance gave every indication that the audience is on the way. Conducted vigorously, performed alertly and energetically, the ensemble brought 1,000 people to their feet after an extended evening of classics and expert arrangements of film and Broadway tunes. A medley of Broadway songs by young arranger Don Wilkerson was the hit of the second half, though the sheer command of orchestral sound evidenced in Boston, say, by conductor/composer John Williams was nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, an ever-growing arsenal of these sparkling performances (about a dozen a year), coupled with a foundation of corporate and individual support that has been growing steadily over the decade, is giving the L.A. Pops just that broader visibility and access to audiences that can help it thrive.

At the moment made up of paid free-lance artists, the orchestra has its sights on 52-week contracts for its musicians, yearly tours, and recording contracts.

The two biggest names behind that drive are founder and musical director Carlo Spiga -- a prot'eg'e of Zubin Mehta and the late Fritz Zweig -- and general manager Victor Wong. Mr. Spiga left his position on the Los Angeles Philharmonic to found the orchestra and six years ago found a willing ally in Mr. Wong, who spent 16 years with legendary Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler. A 36-member board, a nearly 150-member support committee, and a group of young professionals back them in their quest. ``The orchestra was basically founded to emulate the success of the Boston Pops in attracting audiences,'' says Mr. Wong, who also spent 23 years in management with the San Francisco Symphony. ``That is, going to the people with joyful music that is well known, some classics, some popular musical theater pieces in modern arrangement, and a number of categories of pop music.''

Besides attracting a top name in Daniel Pollack, the orchestra will also feature as guests this season diva Wilhelmenia Fernandez; classical guitarists the Romeros; and guest conductor Skitch Henderson, creator of the New York Pops Orchestra.

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Except for two Santa Monica beach concerts played annually at a private club, the L.A. Pops has not yet given a summer season. But Wong says he is negotiating with the Starlight Bowl in Burbank for an outdoor series there that ``would not compete with the Phil's [Los Angeles Philharmonic] summer Hollywood Bowl series but rather give audiences as far south as Newport Beach and north to Santa Barbara a whole new approach to summertime festive music.''

For the four winter-series concerts, both practice and performance hall is the large ``Los Angeles Room'' ballroom, where patrons take one of three venues to the Pops: meal, dessert, and concert for $80; dessert and concert, $25; or concert alone for $15. Though both Spiga and Wong praise the acoustics of the sprawling room -- jutting stage, dance floor, and two horseshoe-shaped rows of tables for guests -- this reviewer found that the cavernous expanse diminished the power of the players, despite electronic boosting. Unlike Boston, no food is served during the performances, so less noise and more model decorum is the order of the day. The Boston Pops formula of two intermissions was dropped as making the evenings too long.

``Because of so many recordings available, the general public is very selective these days about what it is going to hear live,'' says Wong. ``We've got to give them something spectacular the first time or they don't come back. So far, our growing audiences tell us we're doing just that.''

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