1979 was not a banner year in music unless you liked a certain kind of music, namely disco. The big song that year was Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive." There was also "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer, "Le Freak" by Chic and a host of other songs that boasted a great beat but little else. Saturday Night Fever won the Grammy for best album. It seemed an inauspicious time to start a pops orchestra in Philadelphia dedicated to performing what later became known as the Great American Songbook.
The Philly Pops founder was a Polish immigrant named Moses Septytor, who grew up in Newark, went into public relations, then into producing music and dance, then came to Philadelphia to take over the All-Star Forum, a company that showcased mostly classical music stars. Under his guidance, that outfit expanded into all kinds of music and dance, revived musical theater in Philadelphia, produced a several Broadway hits (including a Tony-winning Vietnam war drama starring Al Pacino), became the leading proponent of South Broad Street as the Avenue of the Arts, started the Summer of the Stars series that featured such popular entertainers such as The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, the Dave Clark Five, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, the Temptations, Otis Redding, the Supremes, Black Sabbath, The Beach Boys, James Brown, The Byrds and Ray Charles.
In the process, Moses Septytor — having Americanized his name to Moe Septee — became Philadelphia’s most dynamic impresario when Philadelphia had such people. That’s who created the Philly Pops Orchestra, with Peter Nero as its conductor and public face. Septee was a man who got things done.
Over the next 35 years, as the Philly Pops established a national reputation (second only to the Boston Pops in acclaim) the Pops and Nero became virtually synonymous in the public mind (much like Arthur Fiedler with the Boston Pops). But Septee died in 1997. And in 2012, when the Pops and Nero fell out over his contract, the Pops opted to replace him.
Could the Pops survive without Nero? Many doubted it. The American Federation of Musicians, which represents all 60 Pops musicians, called in a mediator, fearing that its members would soon be out of work if Nero left. But the mediation failed. The following year, Michael Krajewski succeeded Nero and the Pops crossed its anxious fingers.
At this past weekend’s Pops tribute to Broadway musicals, Krajewski demonstrated that he is indeed a worthy heir to both Septee and Nero. Combining a touch of Septee’s unflagging showmanship with the solid musical chops that were always in evidence with Peter Nero at the helm, Krajewski opened the concert with the song that has become the Pops’ official anthem: Bill Conti’s "Gonna Fly Now," from the soundtrack of Rocky.
The spotlight found Maestro Krajewski in the balcony with the Philly Pops Festival Choir, 140 strong and about to belt out the song that made the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps the most famous museum entrance in the world. Krajewski raised his arms and raced up the balcony steps; then, seconds later, he ran onto the stage, then up and down the aisles, waving his arms in the air. To say the least, it was an opening few will forget.
For the next two hours, the Pops — along with the Pops Festival Choir and guests Christiane Noll, Dee Roscioli and Doug LaBrecque — performed a bouquet of Broadway’s best songs, from the semi-operatic days of Oh Marietta to the show-stopping first act closer of Wicked. The guests not only sang the songs perfectly (each of them had starred in many revivals, touring productions and on Broadway with these songs), they also brought new twists to the original renditions that most of us in the audience thought we already knew.
But the highlights were those songs that the guests performed with the Choir: a rousing "Oklahoma" that’s as infectious as the day it was written, and an incredible "Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In" from Hair that closed the show to a standing ovation.
The message seems clear: Septee’s baby has survived, even without Moe and Peter.