The musicians waited for his command.
“Well? Let’s see what we end up with.”
After the piece was played one more time, the National Symphony Orchestra’s new principal pops conductor, Steven Reineke, named in February, ended the rehearsal with a cheery, “That works for me.”
“You guys cool with that?” he asked.
All was cool.
Later that evening, the audience issued a more riotous verdict, with strangers adjoining hands and shoulders to form a massive conga line that snaked through the Kennedy Center’s packed Concert Hall. This week Reineke begins his three-year tenure at Wolf Trap, conducting “Disney in Concert: Magical Music From the Movies.”
Reineke looks like J.Crew cast him for its catalogue. Pairing jeans and a blue oxford shirt with his all-American boyish looks, he exudes a go-with-the-tempo style that sometimes moves his rehearsals into jam-session territory.
He begins rehearsals with announcements more appropriate for cruise directors than conductors: Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have a fun time this evening. He’s unexpectedly rosy, never glaring at his weakest player or frowning if his ear catches mistakes by a sluggish viola or rogue French horn.
“I come from a player’s mentality,” said Reineke, 40, sitting in a velvet chair in the Kennedy Center’s Golden Circle Lounge. “I remember making fun of a lot of conductors. Orchestras know within 30 seconds whether you have the wherewithal to be up there. I think of myself as a coach, not a dictator.”
Players find his style charming.
“He has more love for this music than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Aaron Goldman, assistant principal flutist for the NSO. “He’s definitely a laid-back, easygoing guy, but the energy he brings to the stage is extraordinary. We can’t help but get caught up in that.”
Pops have long been the moneymaking arm of American orchestras, a venue for showcasing a mix of popular and light classical music. Now, with two-thirds of U.S. orchestras facing deficits, and the esteemed Philadelphia Orchestra in bankruptcy since April, that financial mission has taken on even greater significance. The challenge for Reineke in Washington, which has a thriving classical music scene, is to deliver the light classics and jazz standards to older audiences while finding and nurturing new ones.
Reineke seems more excited than daunted by the task.
The pops trumpeter
As part of Reineke’s rise to prominence, he became the music director of the New York Pops and principal pops conductor of the Long Beach and Modesto symphony orchestras, positions he still holds. Although he is the protege of Erich Kunzel, the famed “Prince of Pops,” who led the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for more than 40 years, his musical history is an atypical one.