Musical Treats

Musical Treats

Pasadena Symphony and POPS find innovative ways to keep music lovers listening

By Carl Kozlowski 09/04/2014

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The Pasadena Symphony & POPS has dealt with plenty of challenges in the past few years. First was longtime POPS conductor Rachael Worby departing in 2010 to create her own popular concert ensemble MUSE/IQUE. Then Worby’s successor, Marvin Hamlisch, had his tenure tragically cut short with his untimely death in 2012.  

But the orchestra has come swinging back to life under the guidance of current POPS conductor Michael Feinstein, the highly popular singer, pianist and musical revivalist whose mastery of the Great American Songbook made a perfect complement for the post. 

That revival is evident this weekend in two distinctly different settings: the closing concert of the summer season, titled “New York! New York!”,  at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden on Saturday night and a special brunch performance on Sunday at longtime Los Angeles favorite restaurant Tam O’Shanter on Sunday as part of the ensemble’s Random Acts of Music series. 

“We’re going to have a string trio performing during the brunch, and it’s just an opportunity to brighten the day of the guests and enhance the meal they’re having,” says Christine Witmer, the symphony’s director of education and community engagement. “We’re just sending a string trio with two violins and a cello there, but they’ll be playing a healthy mix of classical and popular music. The repertoire goes from Mozart and Beethoven to shows like ‘Cats’ and ‘West Side Story,’ so we’re spotlighting both angles of what we do.”

Funded by the Irvine Foundation and the Rose Hills Foundation, the Random Acts of Music (RAM) series is a community engagement program the symphony and POPS launched in 2012. The goal of the series is to break down the barriers that keep classical music from reaching into the everyday lives of communities. 


“It’s always pros from the symphony going out to perform, with audiences encouraged to interact and ask questions,” says Witmer. “It’s all designed to help people become more familiar with our organization.” 


Indeed, the RAM performances have kept its musicians busy all over Los Angeles County this summer, with surprise appearances outside Christ Lutheran Church in West Covina, at the Disney corporate complex in Pasadena for a private show for Disney staff, and at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The Tam O’Shanter appearance came about through a Rotary Club meeting, leading to the special performance at the eatery, which at 92 years old is the flagship of the Lawry’s restaurant empire and the longest-running family-owned restaurant to exist in the same location in the entire LA area. 


The symphony’s mix of music marks a sharp change of pace from the restaurant’s usual choice of music, which spotlights Celtic music on Saturdays in its pub. But as he prepares for diners to settle in for the house specialties of prime rib or gigantic gourmet sandwiches, general manager John Lindquist is excited. 


“Live music is a strong part of the Tam’s heritage and culture,” says Lindquist. “It’s an honor to host such renowned musicians from the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra. The Random Acts of Music will definitely be an unforgettable experience for our brunch guests.”


Saturday’s “New York! New York!” show should be equally unforgettable for longtime POPS fans, who have long been accustomed to enjoying America’s most famous songs under the stars at the Arboretum. The season finale will feature three special guest singers, led by Grammy-winning multiplatinum vocalist Patti Austin in addition to Liz Callaway (a singer from “Anastasia” and “Cats”) and Aaron Tveit of the 2012 film adaptation of “Les Miserables”, and the stage musicals “Graceland” and “Catch Me If You Can.” 


They will be powering through a number of New York-inspired iconic songs, including tunes from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” “On the Town” and “West Side Story,” in addition to Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Don’t Mean a Thing,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train.” Rounding things out are favorites by Stephen Sondheim (“Broadway Baby” and “What More Do I Need”), Cole Porter (“I Happen To Like New York”) and more.


While Saturday’s performance closes out the POPS’ prime annual season, music lovers won’t have to wait long for another treat. The orchestra will return on Oct .4 for a special free “Music Under the Stars” concert at Pasadena City Hall, featuring Larry Blank conducting and guests vocalists Valerie Perri, Christina Saffran and David Burnham in a 90-minute extravaganza that should prove popular with music lovers of all ages and tastes. 


One thing is for certain: in an age when classical music is struggling to maintain the interest of mainstream audiences, the Pasadena Symphony & POPS are fighting for hearts, minds and ears with an abundance of creativity and style. n

The Pasadena Symphony & POPS will perform “New York! New York!” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Tickets are $20 to $115. Call (626) 793-7172 or visit

A string trio from the Pasadena Symphony & POPS will perform from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Tam O’Shanter, 2980 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles. The performance is free, but attendees must eat brunch. Call (323) 664-0228 or visit

The Pasadena Symphony & POPS will perform “Music Under the Stars” with the JPL Chorus at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at Pasadena City Hall, 100 N. Garfield Ave., Pasadena. Admission is free. Call (626) 793-7172 or visit 


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