Peter Nero: Fabled Pianist and Philly Pops Maestro
AAJ: OK, back to the Philly Pops. Give us a rundown.
PN: The Philly Pops began in 1979, and it was the brainchild of Moe Septee, who was then head of the All Star Forum, and local impresario. In 1977, I had appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra as guest conductor and piano soloist in an all-Gershwin program. That's when Moe got the idea for a Pops orchestra in Philly. We started in 1979, and I was the founding music director. Arthur Fiedler had died in the same year, so I dedicated a Gershwin concert to him, with the "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F."
AAJ: a couple of other questions. First, how did you choose your stage name, Peter Nero?
PN: That was chosen for me. My given name was Bernard Nierow. For background, in the early 1900s, my paternal grandfather deserted the Czar's Army in Siberia, went to the West Coast, and then came to New York. My father, his mother and brother came directly from Europe. My guess is the original Russian name was Nierov but the emigration officer must have used a "w." So my name was pronounced "Nero." I was playing intermission piano at the Hickory House in New York, a great job. I was 22 then, 1956, I believe. My manager didn't like the name Bernie, and neither did RCA when I made my first album for them in 1960. The manager's son's name was Peter, his nephew's name was Peter, and he managed Peter Palmer. So, he pitched "Peter" to RCA without telling me, and they liked it. I wanted to have my first name at least remind me of Bernard, like Brad or whatever, but he said, "RCA likes Peter, and we'll drop the silent letters in your last name, and it'll be Peter Nero."
AAJ: It's a great stage name for sure. The second question is that there seems to be an inevitable parallel between you and Leonard Bernstein, in that you were somewhat contemporariesyou are a pianist, he was a fine pianist; you both are conductors, and so on. I wonder if you had any interactions with him.
PN: Unfortunately, no. But, while I'm flattered by your comparison, Bernstein was without a doubt a true genius in many respects. And I am not. Bernstein at age 24, when the conductor Bruno Walter got sick, stepped up on the podium in front of the New York Philharmonic, and if I remember correctly, he conducted the entire concert from memory. And then there were all the marvelous lectures he did, and writing major pieces like Mass, and Broadway shows like West Side Story, which turned the Broadway musical upside down. Here was a musical where every song had a life of its own. Each song was a different style, a different meter, a different harmony. Next to Porgy and Bess, it's probably the closest thing to an opera that we have. Musically it's sensational.
AAJ: Are you ever going to have a Bernstein night with the Philly Pops?
PN: It's interesting that you should say that because on July 22 , we're going to do a night of Bernstein and Richard Rodgers at the Mann Center. We're combining them because, in addition to writing songs, both of them also wrote orchestral pieces. Rodgers wrote Victory at Sea and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and I'm going to write an arrangement of those, because the original was written for a dance group, and is fragmented; it confuses the audience. So I'd like to make it more seamless. We'll do that this summer. We've got Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story overtures, and we'll also do tunes with two singers, that go back as far as the '30s, like Rodgers' "You Took Advantage of Me," and so on.
By the way, Vic, I read your review of the Diane Schuur concert, and you referred to my "Variations on 'I Got Rhythm'" as "kitsch." I looked up the definitions of that and I couldn't find one that was a compliment. I've got to tell you that I think the problem was that it's meant as a parody. Five variations based on the styles of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Liszt, The parody tipoff was when I announced "and the very beautiful love theme from "Poltergeist II." I probably didn't set it up enough, although I believe the audience got it.
Peter Nero, On My Own & Other Broadway Ballads, (Intersound Records, 1997)
Peter Nero, It Had to be You, (Intersound Records, 1994)
Peter Nero, Peter Nero Plays Duke Ellington, (Concord Records, 1990)
Peter Nero, I've Gotta Be Me, (Columbia, 1974)
Peter Nero, For the Nero-Minded, (RCA, 1962)
Courtesy of Peter Nero