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New Pasadena Pops Starts Off With Bang at 1st Free Concert

August 25, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

More than 1,000 people joined in a massive sing-along of Irving Berlin's greatest hits.

They clapped in unison to John Philip Sousa marches.

City Hall chimes blended with the bells of the First Baptist Church a block away for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

All this--along with a Marine Corps color guard, frolicking children and picnicking families--gave a feeling of deep-rooted tradition when the Pasadena Pops Orchestra performed Sunday night in front of City Hall.

Yet it was an evening of firsts.

It was a new orchestra giving Pasadena its first free public pops concert. And it was the first time families and parties of friends had been invited to picnic on the lawns and streets around City Hall for such an occasion.

Many of the people who took major roles in organizing the concert and a fund-raising dinner on Sunday night are newcomers to Pasadena. None had experience in staging an outdoor pops concert.

The orchestra--composed mostly of 90 professional musicians who live in the Pasadena area--just a year ago was only a twinkle in the eye of its founder and conductor, Victor Vener of Pasadena. He brought the musicians together for their first concert in April, and two more performances followed to complete the first season.

The idea of a public concert in Centennial Square--the new name for the plaza at Garfield Avenue and Holly Street--was first discussed last month.

Vener, a French-horn player and conductor who has performed and taught throughout Europe and North America, said he got the idea of outdoor concerts while performing in European cities that have music festivals.

He founded the Pasadena Pops Orchestra this year by recruiting well-established musicians, many of whom are principals in other major Southern California symphony orchestras. He also helped start a support group--Foothill Friends of Music--that sponsors the orchestra's concerts.

Then he started talking about the outdoor pops orchestra with little groups of people he thought might be interested.

"It's almost miraculous, the way it came together," Vener said of Sunday's concert, which was attended by an estimated 1,200 who brought folding chairs, blankets and food.

Part of the miracle, Vener said, is that many members of the orchestra and Foothill Friends of Music are what he calls "immigrants"--people who have recently moved to the Pasadena area.

"Part of our success has been in breaking the mold," Vener said. "We do all Sunday early evening concerts, which nobody else does."

More important, he said, is that many new Pasadena-area residents embraced the idea of a pops orchestra.

"I had probably 10 experienced people say it's a great idea but it will never fly," Vener said. "On and on it went. If I had listened to people who were in the know I would have shot myself. But I went to the immigrants instead."

Among them are three former Bostonians who say they are eager for Pasadena to have its equivalent of the Boston Pops Orchestra. They are Bert James, general manager of the Hilton Hotel Pasadena; Robert O'Rourke, head of public relations for Caltech, and Ed Aghjayan, assistant city manager.

James arranged for last April's first concert to be held in the Hilton hotel, and for three more to be performed there in the 1989. O'Rourke got media attention for the orchestra, and Aghjayan got the park and recreation departments of both Pasadena and Los Angeles County to back Sunday's concert with about $3,000 each.

Another newcomer is Lily Johnson, who arranged a lavish fund-raising dinner in City Hall's inner courtyard Sunday before the concert. Nine restaurants and stores donated food and beverages for guests who paid $15 each, raising $2,200.

Johnson said she organized the benefit in just two weeks. It was only a week before that, she said, that she first heard of Foothill Friends of Music and the Pops Orchestra.

Karla Payne, a bass player in the orchestra, said she agreed to be president of Foothill Friends of Music last month, even though she knew nothing about heading such an organization.

"This is all I do now," Payne said. "It is formidable."

The organizers all said they were delighted with the concert and the public's response to it.

"We're hoping it will be a tradition," Vener said. "There seems to be a real enthusiasm for this."

Aghjayan agreed. "The message I got was that people loved it."

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