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New York Pops Entertain and Educate - 2002-05-14

A popular New York orchestra focuses as much attention on educating young people as it does on its repertoire - the New York Pops.

Rehearsal at the New York Pops is a relaxed affair. Musicians laugh and chat as they tune their instruments and page through their sheet music. Then Skitch Henderson, 84-year-old conductor and founder of the New York Pops, raps the podium with his baton.

"Pops" refers to popular music played by a classical symphony orchestra. Instead of Beethoven, Bach, or Brahms, a pops orchestra will interpret the works of Bernstein, Berlin, and the Beatles.

Skitch Henderson said the popular U.S. genre was actually born in England, in the 1920s. "Tommy Beecham started an orchestra in London," he said, "and he did a concert series in London long before all of this, called a "Lollipop Series", which was for children. You could not be older than 12 or 13. They played light classical music."

Mr. Henderson began his music career in the 1930's as a piano player for Hollywood movie studios. But he became well-known in the United States directing music groups on popular television shows.

In 1983, Mr. Henderson founded the New York Pops, and over the ensuing two decades, he has wooed an ever-growing audience into his melodious lair - New York's legendary Carnegie Hall.

Today, performances by the Pops regularly sell out. In fact, its annual series of concerts has one of the highest subscription and renewal rates of any Carnegie Hall series.

But the heart of the New York Pops is its undying commitment to programs for children.

The Pops' "Salute to Music" program provides free music instruction to New York City middle-school students for seventeen weeks during the school year.

Another program, called "Kids in the Balcony" provides young people with tickets to a Pops concert. Beforehand, they meet with Pops staff members, and are prepped for the concert-going experience.

Mr. Henderson cherishes these programs, and the children themselves above all. "They are the most fantastic audience," he said. "They scream and yell, they stay for the concerts. They're not the disciplinary problem that the exalted powers here at Carnegie Hall thought they would be. And that has been a wonderful thing for us."

Dr. Sherrie Maricle, a Pops percussionist, says the children's programs can build a larger audience for the Pops, and for "serious" music as a whole. She uses her instrument to connect children to the joys of orchestral music. "I play the drums," Dr. Maricle said, "so I have an intimate, immediate connection with them by explaining to them what the beat might be. I say, "Now, when you look down there you'll see me playing the drums in this style, and that's the same kind of beat you might hear in this song, and then I name some rock or rap tune they might know. Then they get it right away."

Skitch Henderson has spent more than 60 years in music, in a career that has taken him from film to television to New York's most prestigious concert hall. But he still has one lingering wish, and it pertains to the New York Pops. "I think if I want anything in my life," he said, "and I'm so lucky to have this at this point in my life, I want it to be part of New York. I don't know how else to say it."

The Pops will be a particularly important part of New York this July, when they will perform an outdoor tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks just a few blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood.