by Matt Smith
All was buzzy and bright inside Feinstein’s/54 Below last Monday night, when the renowned New York Pops orchestra traded the vast amphitheater of Carnegie Hall for the intimate hotspot to present their annual benefit cabaret: The (aptly titled) New York Pops Underground.
The annual concert, now in its seventh year at the venue, directly supports the symphony’s celebrated PopsEd programs, which aim to provide music education, access to the orchestra Carnegie Hall concerts, and live performance opportunities to musically inclined students across all five boroughs of New York City.
With a champagne toast and sumptuous nibbles, a lively live auction, and a spirited performance from a jazzy student jazz sextet by French Woods Jazz Ensemble, there was certainly no shortage of activity at any point in the evening.
But, of course, what’s a New York Pops event without a starry musical headliner? And who better to fit the bill than booming Broadway baritone Norm Lewis?
Backed by his traditional triumvirate of talented musicians — George Farmer, Perry Cavari, and musical director Joseph Joubert — while fervidly emphasizing the evening is “for the kids,” Lewis expertly weaves his way through a set comprised of soulful blues staples and musical theatre hits. Naturally, a few of the non-traditional tunes from his feted holiday engagements at the venue make a deserved reprise, as do the obligatory passes at Les Miz, Phantom, and Porgy and Bess.
Most notable, however — apart from a fresh, bluesy spin on a My Fair Lady favorite — is his opener, Man of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream,” whose lyrics, which detail fighting “the unbeatable foe to reach the unreachable star,” speak to the very goals and aspirations the affair champions and upholds, on behalf of the children, as well as the drive and courage it takes from its beneficiaries to actually achieve those goals in the first place.
In speaking of fulfilling his own quest to play the Phantom of the Opera — subsequently becoming the first African-American man to do so on Broadway — Lewis adds, “The most important thing for a young person to have in his or her life is passion. Passion for what they believe in, the ability to nurture this thing they love, and ultimately, manifest it to strive for something big.” With that – and, as the evening exhibits, a little help from generous audience donors and the New York Pops – “they can change themselves and change the world.”
On that note, also recognized amid the festivities was 2019-20 PopsEd Honoree Ron Schaefer. Schaefer was honored as Founder and Director of the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts, the benefactor of the scholarships students receive as part of the Pops program.
He spoke candidly about the initial creation and ownership of the camp – “something, in the worst way, I always wanted to do” – while praising the orchestra and its maestro Steven Reineke for their ongoing support of the getaway, a gesture punctuated by their participation in the camp’s annual Side By Side concert.
“The collaboration with the New York Pops is truly something mind-blowing,” Schaffer asserted. “If any of you get the opportunity to come up and hear this concert” – fusing the French Woods camper orchestra with professional New York Pops musicians – “I guarantee you will be absolutely flipped out. It’s an experience you’ll never forget….and our kids look forward to it year after year. They absolutely live for it all summer long.”
Perhaps, to that end, having achieved what they’ve achieved thus far, these students have already grasped and internalized the ideals Lewis had touched upon, working to better themselves and proudly serve as examples in both the orchestral and musical communities at large.
And in that sense, maybe — alongside the fiery combination of Reineke, Schaefer, Lewis and the New York Pops — maybe the “impossible dream” isn’t that “impossible” after all.
Photos: Genevieve Rafter Keddy
The New York Pops Underground, honoring Ron Schaefer, and featuring headliner Norm Lewis, was presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th Street) on September 23rd. For more information on donations, or tickets and information on the upcoming New York Pops season, visit www.newyorkpops.org or www.carnegiehall.org