By Marilyn Lester
After nearly two years of pandemic restrictions, New York Pops Underground Cabaret, at Feinstein’s/54 Below, was back—a homecoming as described by conductor and Music Director, Steven Reineke. Of course, such affairs as this mini-gala for The New York Pops (TNYP) are aimed at raising much-needed funds for continuing the valuable operations of the organization. This year’s event was particularly essential, since the pandemic laid low many individuals and organizations in the arts. And so, before the main attraction of performance by actor-singer Max von Essen, there was much ground to cover.
Patrons of the event (it included a champagne reception and dinner) were serenaded by a septet, a PopsEd Alumni Ensemble under the direction of NY Pops principal bassist Jeff Carney. Carney was also the recipient of an award bestowed on behalf of TNYP orchestra musicians. Also being recognized was Pops Executive Director, Anne Swanson, on the 20th anniversary of guiding and significantly growing the organization, which was founded by Ruth and Skitch Henderson in 1983.
Fundraising focused on PopsEd, a music education program for New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds (especially students) to participate in fully customizable music programs that blend traditional education with “pure fun.” A video of PopsEd kids virtually playing “On Broadway” (Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) hit home the isolation of pandemic restrictions. On the plus side, the video also demonstrated how the Pops rose to the occasion with creative virtual participation during lockdown. A Fund-a-Need auction, conducted by spirited Board Member William T. Sullivan, raised significant monies, with the added benefit (and outgrowth of the pandemic for many organizations) that participation included those streaming the event from their homes.
Max von Essen, no stranger to Pops audiences, was in top form, accompanied by virtuosi musicians, Billy Stritch on piano, Steve Doyle on bass and Daniel Glass on drums. Each was on fire, completely in the pocket, charging the air with their first number, a swinging, samba-based “I Could Have Danced All Night” (Lerner and Loewe). If there’s a key word for von Essen it’s “impeccable”—in demeanor and dress, in vocal tone and clarity, and in phrasing and song interpretation. He was also a tremendous advocate for the Pops, with an impassioned invocation on behalf of “the Pops family.” Over a range of styles, all expertly delivered, von Essen proved himself a crooner in the grand tradition of that musical genre, especially evident in his rendition of a slow-tempo “Fly Me to the Moon” (Bart Howard).
A fun moment arrived with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” (Bob Crewe, Bob Gaudio) with the audience breaking out into a spontaneous sing-along. After revealing that he’d auditioned several times for Phantom of the Opera, never winning the role, von Essen offered a touching and beautifully paced “Til I Hear You Sing” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater) from the sequel musical, Love Never Dies. In an operatic mode, he easily aced “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice), from his turn in the 2012 revival of Evita. Likewise, from his Tony-nominated role in An American in Paris, he offered a delicious medley of prime George and Ira Gershwin numbers. Ending the many riches of music in his program, von Essen encored with “Almost Like Being in Love” (Lerner and Loewe), with a happy and delighted audience once again joining in.
The New York Pops returns live to the stage of Carnegie Hall on Friday, December 17, 2021 with Back Home for the Holidays, its annual celebration of the season, featuring guest artist, Laura Benanti. Visit www.newyorkpops.org for more information and to purchase tickets.
Photos: Genevieve Rafter Keddy