Peter Nero: Fabled Pianist and Philly Pops Maestro
AAJ: Now the "gold standard" for Pops orchestras is probably the Boston Pops.
PN: That might have been so 30 years ago. Do you know their history? Consider this: the Philadelphia Orchestra started in 1901. The Boston Symphony started in 1881. The Boston Pops was started by the Boston Symphony in 1885, Arthur Fiedler was actually the 16th conductor. He died in 1979, coincidentally the same year we started the Philly Pops. And I recorded two albums on piano with the Boston Pops, in 1961 and 1965.
AAJ: Do you have any eccentric interests like Arthur Fiedler did? He used to chase fire engines as a hobby, and it became a tradition at Tanglewood for him to arrive there every year on a fire truck.
PN: No, nothing like that. My hobby is electronics. I'm very serious about it! Every five minutes, there's a new piece of equipment out. I'm the upgrade king, I go back a long way with it. My first computer was the TRS 80 Model One, a Tandy/Radio Shack product. I became a consultant to them for 22 years because of their involvement with both stereo and computers. So I fit the mold perfectly. I had my picture in the catalogues, and I would advise them. But the serial number on my TRS-81 was #26, which will give you an idea of how fast I jumped in. I got in around 1976, and I still have it up in my attic in storage. The one that had the serial number #1 is actually in the Smithsonian (Institution). It was owned by John Roach, who was the chairman of the board of Tandy Corp. It was full of bugs and only had 4k of RAM, and people used to call it the "Trash-80." A love/hate relationship, but that's what started it all.
AAJ: What do you use computers for today?
PN: Everything. I drag my laptop everywhere. I use it for word processing. I love iTunes. If one of the guest artists wants me to do a song I never heard before, I go to iTunes and download it.
AAJ: Do you compose and orchestrate on computer?
PN: No, I do my arrangements by hand, because that's what I've gotten used to and can work faster that way
AAJ:What early experiences stirred up your musical side, and what was formative and transformative for you in your younger days?
PN: First of all, I had two very supportive parents. Both graduated from Brooklyn College. In fact, when I went there later, I was the first offspring of two graduates to go there. Before that I went to the High School of Music and Art, which took forever to get to, 31 stops on the subway from where I lived. At that point, it was located at 135th Street and Convent Avenue in Manhattan. Later on, they merged with Performing Arts and moved down to Lincoln Center.
The original was a tough school. Not only did they have the cream of the crop of music and art students from New York, they were very bright and excelled in everything. Until that point, I aced all the academic subjects but at M&A, I had trouble with my grades in academics. However, in music I got the highest grade on the New York State Regents. I only missed one question. I fudged the fill-in question "After Handel wrote orchestral music, he turned to..." I didn't understand the question, so I answered "the wall [laughter]." What they wanted was "the Oratorio."
AAJ: You must have been a true prodigyyou performed on TV at the young age of 17.
PN: In those days, each network had its own orchestra. Like the NBC Orchestra with Toscanini conducting. At ABC, Paul Whiteman led their orchestra, and I performed Rhapsody in Blue with them.
AAJ: You were still in school at the time. You went to Brooklyn College and also to Juilliard.
PN: Juilliard at 14, in the Prep Division. At that time Juilliard was up on 125th Street and Claremont Avenue at a site that is now occupied by the Manhattan School of Music. I went to Juilliard on Saturdays, only 30 stops on the New York subway. At that time, my father was the director of a children's home with 135 kids who were orphans or from broken homes, and he was like a surrogate father to them. I worked there two nights a week accompanying the kids in their singing and dance classes. I kind of grew up with them, and some are still my friends. I went from $6 to $8 per hour salary while I was there. Interestingly, in light of my future career, I used to pooh-pooh the music because it wasn't straight classical.
AAJ: Apropos of that, you could have been a concert pianist had you so decided, but at some point you were turned on by pops and jazz.
PN: I was exposed to jazz early, but I had no idea it would come in handy later. When I do seminars for up and coming musicians, I tell them that anything you learn about music will hold you in good stead for the rest of your life. You may not know at the time that it is useful, but it will be. That's what happened with me. For example, later in my career, I did an arrangement of "Midnight in Moscow" on one of my RCA albums, and I did a kind of Russian dance arrangement, which was what I was playing in those dance classes.
So, getting back on track, I played with Whiteman when I was 17. I originally intended to go to the main division of Juilliard, and I requested one of three teachers, one of them being Beveridge Webster. I wanted a teacher who played recitals, which were common at the time, and they played once a year at Carnegie Hall. I wanted to study with them because I loved their concerts and wanted to learn from them. But I was told that it there was no guarantee that I would get
By chance, there was a new program on WQXR radio in New York. It was called "Musical Talent in Our Schools" and it was run by the noted pianist and pedagogue, Abram Chasins. They auditioned kids from all over the city on violin, piano and cello. Each of the seven winners of the competition would get to perform on radio in a studio setting with no audience. The three piano judges were Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolph Serkin, and Arthur Rubinstein.
I drew Serkin. I was not only accepted, but I got the position of honor, to close the series. I was a nervous wreck. I got a wax recording of itthey didn't even have vinyl records then, it was 1951. I listened to it and regretted the day I ever did it! [Laughter.] That was part of the problem with classical music for me. Much as I love it and it's still a part of me, you had to play it as written. You had to re-create the music, not create it. You had to re-create the composer's wishesthat was a key concept.
But Chasins was a fantastic pianist and composer who studied with Josef Hoffman. He had developed back trouble, so he couldn't travel by train. That ended his concert career, and he became head of WQXR. He has been credited with developing the format for all other classical music stations. WQXR had their own recital hall, and they had regularly broadcast concerts there. One day the guest pianist didn't show up, and Chasins substituted for him. It made the front page of the New York Times because he hadn't practiced in several years and nobody thought he'd ever play again.
Anyway, after my own broadcast, I asked him if he had any suggestions as to what I could do to improve my piano technique. At first he declined to advise me, saying I should discuss that with my teacher. But I nudged him, and he sat down at the piano. I was flabbergasted at the ease with which he played, the fluidity of his hands, the variety of tone color, between legato and staccato, and his relaxed approach to the keyboard. A lot of teachers misinterpreted the way Horowitz played. We had to sit low, and they thought he bent his arms, but in reality he sat up very straight, and there was no bending there. But we had to sit low and play with high fingers, which he didn't do. So the way that Chasins played was a whole new world for me.
It was June, and I had to do something quickly about college. I asked him if I could study with him. He said he only taught master classes, but that his protégé and wife, Constance Keene, taught a number of students privately. So I played for her, and she took me on as a student. So instead of going to Juilliard, I had already been accepted to Brooklyn College. I went there and simultaneously studied piano with Constance and Abram. It took me one agonizing year to learn to play the right way which is to use the natural weight of the arms, let your brain tell your hands what to do, and no impediments from high fingers or stiff wrists. I continued studying with them for the next four years.
AAJ: That learning must have sustained you through your careerthat's obviously the technique you used at the Philly Pops concert.
PN: All of that came together at the right time. I hadn't learned anything useful about technique until that time. My first teacher came from the high-fingered school, and my forearms got tired. My second teacher didn't bother with technique at all. Chasins and Keene straightened out all the problems. Their approach was correct. I was doing the Bach "Italian Concerto" at one of the master classes and I had a breakthrough. The other students applauded and cheered. There was great camaraderie, and it was like being introduced to a whole new world. The Chasins were very tight with Vladimir Horowitz, for example. But more about him at another time.
AAJ: Given that educational track, it would appear that you were all set to become a classical pianist.
PN: Yes, but after the master class, they broke out the bar, and at these soirées, I would sit down and start playing tunes. And everyone was amazed, because they could only play what was on the printed page, while I was able to improvise spontaneously.
AAJ: Where did that ability come from?
PN: I don't really know, but when I was 15, I was already into George Shearing, and I started to pick his records off because I liked his harmonic sense. And I was always interested in the jazz of the day when I was younger. But I was 19 when I really woke up and I heard Tatum. I was at a record store, and one of his albums caught my eye: The Genius of Art Tatutm (Black Lion, 1945). I bought it because I had to learn how a "genius" played, and that was the first album I could not pick off. I did his runs, but not the way he did. Here was a guy with concert pianist chops who was improvising, and had that feeling of swing, and he was right on the money time-wise, even when he suspended it in mid-air. I also saw him once on the Steve Allen "Tonight" show around 1953.
AAJ: That was a great house band.
PN: Doc Severinsen hadn't come to New York then, but all those guys wound up on my record dates, like Urbie Green on trombone. They were the best New York recording musicians.
AAJ: So you were being exposed to a number of different influences at that time. And people noticed that you could improvise well.
PN: Actually that started much younger, when I was four. I was a depression baby, and the only instrument the family could afford then was a toy xylophone. I started picking out tunes on it. Then, when I was seven, we went to a relative's house. They had a piano, and I started to knock out the same tunes. So they decided they had a budding genius. My grandmother persuaded them to put that piano in my house, and I started taking lessons right away.
I soon studied with a guy named Frederick Bried from New Jersey, who was very strict and taught those high fingers and stiff wrists and all that. I would start knocking out some boogie-woogie and stride piano or whatever, and my mother would yell from the kitchen, "That's not what you're supposed to be doing!" In those days, you obeyed your parents so I did the drills my teacher assigned me. I began piano studies with Constance and Abram when I was 17. After a year, my parents asked to speak with both of them. My mother wanted me to be a concert pianistChasins and Keene told her I needed to attend a conservatory to learn repertoire where you spent your life eating, sleeping and living classical music. They also said that there was no successful concert pianist at that time who attended a liberal arts college. For instance, Lang Lang, who was studying at the Curtis Institute, was suddenly called in to play the Rachmaninoff Third at age 19 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He ripped it, and a star was born.
But Connie and Abram said, "One of the things your kid can do that none of the others can do is sit down and play whatever comes into his head, which the others can't do. So why should he join the rest of the pack and just do what they do? He can do something more creative." They liked all kinds of music. They used to take Horowitz in his seclusion period when he was suffering from depression to hear Joey Bushkin, Sy Walters, and other jazz pianists of the day. Horowitz would marvel that they were playing whatever came into their heads, at their phenomenal technique; and how they could still play while blitzed. Horowitz wouldn't even drink a glass of wine 48 hours before a concert! Connie and Abraham opened my eyes and those of my parents.
When I was 19, there were a bunch of TV contests, mostly for professionals. One as for amateurs and teenagers, called Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club, televised from Philadelphia. My mother dared me to enter it. So, I had done an arrangement for piano and band of the theme from "The Brave Bulls" based on a Rafael Mendez recording of "La Virgen de la Macarena," the theme played and heard at every bullfight. So I auditioned, and got to perform. And I won the grand finals in March 1954. Then I got a call from Arthur Godfrey's sister, Kathy, who had a talent show called On Your Way. I got on that show, and won. Then, I went on Dennis James' Chance of a Lifetime, where the prize was $1,000 and a week of performing at the Latin Quarter. But I lost the second round on that show, and my father learned it was rigged and he came up on stage and wanted to kill Dennis JamesI had to restrain him! At that time he was deputy commissioner of the New York City Youth Board and he wrote a letter to the network. Next week, Dennis James had to go on and defend the show. What happened was that they had gotten a rigged cheering section from a local high school and since the audience judged the performers by an applause meter, the comedy team won. But then I won on the Arthur Godfrey show, and that was a big break. Won five TV contests in 4 months.