Traditionally, orchestras around the country count the days until summer, when turnstiles revolve furiously at outdoor amphitheaters and benches fill with crowds hungry for lighter musical fare.
But in these fiscally fragile times, orchestras big and small are no longer holding out for the balmy breez- es--and increased revenues--of July and August. Rather, they're programming year-round pops concerts in an effort to keep more costly "serious" artistic ventures afloat.
In its opening season, the Orange County Performing Arts Center will present evenings of Bernstein, Gershwin, Mancini and others as a way "to draw an audience in," according to Executive Director Thomas R. Kendrick. "Centers that move toward pops do so to stay economically viable. These events offer a chance to break even."
Pops aficionados in Southern California gather in enormous numbers each summer at the Hollywood Bowl. The center hopes to lure such lovers of lighter fare to a series of concerts featuring the Orange County Pacific Symphony, led by music director Keith Clark and guest conductors Lukas Foss and Michel Legrand. Soloists will include Mel Tor- me, Doc Severinsen and Shirley Jones.
"I think it's important for the music director to be present have his presence at pops concerts," Clark says. "It makes a statement that this is important."
Maurice Allard, who will direct his Orange County Master Chorale in a gospel celebration at the center in June, 1987, also accepts the importance of pops concerts. "The ultimate for a choral person is to conduct only great works," Allard says. "But there is such a demand (for pops), we simply can't ignore it.
"I'm a communicator. Whether you're doing the 'Crucifixus' from (Bach's) B-minor Mass, or 'Younger Than Springtime,' you are still communicating."
Each year, Allard conducts one pops event. However, he says a three-event, pops-only series is "on the boards for the following season (at the center)."
Erich Kunzel, who serves as music director with no fewer than four North American pops orchestras, acknowledges an increased interest across the nation for lighter fare. He sees that path as fraught with danger.
"I worry that an orchestra's music director will ask the assistant conductor to slap together a pops program or two to satisfy the crowds," Kunzel says. "It's not that easy. A pops conductor must have a personality. The audiences are going for entertainment, so the conductor must be an entertainer."
Programming, he adds, is crucial. "Pops is not a gimmick. You can't just play junk music."
Summer audiences are in their element in the relaxed atmosphere of an outdoor site such as the 17,600-seat Hollywood Bowl, where competitive picnicking, rolling wine bottles, cruising aircraft, singing crickets and the sheer expanse of the place can make any attempt at serious listening a trivial pursuit. Luring such listeners to a gleaming, new, formal indoor facility such as the 3,000-seat Performing Arts Center will be no easy task, Kendrick admits.
"This is not a rock-concert forum," he explains. "We don't have the atmosphere or the capacity of a place like the Pacific Amphitheatre."
Rather, Kendrick hopes to book performers such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jose Feliciano or Frank Sinatra, "who might want to come because of the high-class feel of the hall."
Both Clark and Kendrick agree that pops audiences will be lured as much by the facility as by an event itself.
"Sure, people will come because they simply want to see the hall," Clark says, adding that audiences won't be greeted by musicians wearing "funny hats and funny noses at our concerts. I look at our pops series at the Performing Arts Center as classy entertainment, and I'm not going to apologize for it."
"We would be termed elitist , " Kendrick adds, "if we didn't view pops as a major element. We see our responsibility to these audiences quite simply: These programs have to be of a very high quality."