Thursday, November 4, 2010

ArtsPaper Interview: Peter Nero, still exploring the intersection of musical styles

Peter Nero.

By Jan Engoren

Born in Brooklyn in‭ ‬1934,‭ ‬pops‭ ‬pianist Peter Nero‭ (‬Bernard Nierow‭) ‬began his formal musical education at the age of‭ ‬7.‭ ‬At‭ ‬14,‭ ‬he was accepted to New York City’s prestigious High School of Music and Art and won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music.‭

A two-time Grammy award winner and‭ ‬10-time nominee,‭ ‬Nero has released‭ ‬68‭ ‬albums over a career of‭ ‬50‭ ‬years.‭ ‬His early affiliation with RCA Records produced‭ ‬23‭ ‬albums in eight years,‭ ‬and his ensuing move to Columbia Records earned him a gold album for‭ ‬The Summer of‭ ’‬42.

Since‭ ‬1979,‭ ‬Nero has been the‭ ‬music director of the Philly Pops,‭ ‬which he founded,‭ ‬and does double duty as both conductor and performer.‭ ‬He did the same thing for the Florida Philharmonic throughout the‭ ‬1990s and into‭ ‬2003,‭ ‬the year the orchestra failed.

This Friday and Saturday,‭ ‬Nero returns to‭ ‬South‭ ‬Florida‭ ‬to perform with his trio at the Eissey Campus Theatre in North Palm Beach,‭ ‬and at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Jan Engoren spoke to Nero from his home in Philadelphia,‭ ‬where after a busy day of phone calls to the West Coast and taking care of the business side of music,‭ ‬he finally sat down to a very late breakfast and a bowl of high-fiber cereal.

They talked about his Brooklyn boyhood,‭ ‬his nostalgia for‭ ‬5-cent fountain Cokes,‭ ‬his admiration of,‭ ‬and friendship with,‭ ‬pianist‭ ‬Vladimir Horowitz,‭ ‬his love of crossword puzzles,‭ ‬technology,‭ ‬and women.

Engoren:‭ ‬Congratulations on your long career.‭ ‬How have you manged to survive all the changes in the music industry and changes in technology‭?

Nero:‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬it’s‭ ‬50‭ ‬years since I made my first recording.‭ ‬I made my first recording,‭ ‬Piano Forte,‭ ‬in‭ ‬1960.‭ ‬It was released in‭ ‬1961.‭ ‬In‭ ‬1962,‭ ‬I was presented with a Grammy award for best new artist.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬you see,‭ ‬I can drag this‭ ‬50-year anniversary out for the next three years.‭

If you go onto the Grammy Awards website you can see who won best new artist,‭ ‬starting in‭ ‬1957‭ ‬when the awards started,‭ ‬and you look and see how many people are still around.‭ ‬They may be still alive,‭ ‬but they’re not making music.‭ ‬I’m very thankful to still be making music and working in a field that I love.

Engoren:‭ ‬Since the music industry is now fairly segmented and each radio station plays a particular type of music,‭ ‬how do you get exposure these days‭?

Nero:‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬I think the internet has taken care of that.‭ ‬These days more people download your songs than buy your CDs.‭ ‬I Google my name to stay on top of the business.‭ ‬I can get a pretty good picture of downloads of my songs and I have a total of‭ ‬68‭ ‬albums that I worked on.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬they’re not all currently available,‭ ‬but they always show up‭ ‬on eBay in LP form.‭

Engoren:‭ ‬Who is your typical audience member‭?

Nero:‭ ‬My audience is getting younger.‭ ‬Either that,‭ ‬or I’m getting older.‭ ‬They used to be‭ ‬55‭ ‬to‭ ‬75‭ ‬years old,‭ ‬and now the average age is between‭ ‬45‭ ‬to‭ ‬65‭ ‬years old.‭

Engoren:‭ ‬I think it’s more difficult now for new people to break into the music industry unless you are Lady Gaga.‭ ‬What was your experience like‭?

Nero:‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬if I was starting out now and trying to break into the music industry,‭ ‬I’d be selling pianos‭ – ‬not playing them‭!

There are many talented people out there who need some hope and encouragement for the future.‭ ‬I made it by pure luck and coincidence.‭

When I was in Juilliard,‭ ‬they had a joint program with the New York classical radio station,‭ ‬WQXR.‭ ‬Abram Chasins,‭ ‬the music director and protégé of‭ ‬[pianist‭] ‬Josef Hofmann,‭ ‬created the classical music format and started a program called Music in the Schools.‭ ‬They held auditions for pianists with some very esteemed judges,‭ ‬including‭ ‬Arthur Rubinstein,‭ ‬Rudolf‭ ‬Serkin and Vladimir Horowitz.‭

I had the honor of closing the seventh week.‭ ‬It was a half-hour broadcast.‭ ‬I was so‭ ‬nervous,‭ ‬I hardly remember what I played.‭ ‬I was‭ ‬17‭ ‬years old.‭ ‬Sometimes I think the younger you are,‭ ‬the more nerve you have.‭ ‬My wrists would get tired when I played,‭ ‬so‭ ‬I asked Chasins for some tips to help with my playing.

At first,‭ ‬he was reticent to do that because he knew I had a teacher and he didn’t want to interfere.‭ ‬But,‭ ‬I convinced him.‭ ‬He had retired from being a concert pianist.‭ ‬He sat down at the piano and still had perfect execution and perfect musicality.‭ ‬The fluidity and the ease with which he played‭; ‬the variety of tones he had.‭ ‬He taught me something.‭

I had been taught to keep high fingers and stiff wrists‭ – ‬you could balance a glass of water on my wrists‭;‬ no movement allowed.‭ ‬That was the current school of thought but really,‭ ‬the complete antithesis of the way it should be.‭

At that time,‭ ‬they misanalyzed Vladimir Horowitz’s playing.‭ ‬It was thought that having stiff wrists was the proper technique.‭ ‬But in reality,‭ ‬nobody was more relaxed than Vladimir Horowitz,‭ ‬and he was in total control.‭

When I was a kid,‭ ‬I used to go to all his concerts.‭ ‬I would get up early to wait on line at‭ ‬6‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬for tickets to go on sale at‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬I’d arrive at‭ ‬6‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬and be first on‭ ‬line.‭ ‬I’d‭ ‬freeze to death for four hours,‭ ‬but I’d get two tickets for the last balcony for‭ ‬$1.20‭ ‬each.‭ ‬Throughout the concert,‭ ‬I’d be sitting on the edge of my seat.

When I began recording,‭ ‬Chasins invited Horowitz‭ ‬to come to a benefit performance I was doing in‭ ‬1963.‭ ‬I have a picture of us together at that party that I treasure and value with my life.‭ ‬I sent a duplicate to him to autograph.‭ ‬A month went by and I called his secretary,‭ ‬Bernice,‭ ‬and said,‭ ‬Is he going to sign that for me‭? ‬And she said,‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬I was going to drop you a note saying he said he’d be very happy to do that for you,‭ ‬provided you do the same for him.

He was my idol and‭ ‬my favorite classical pianist.‭ ‬He was a pretty easygoing guy.‭ ‬Child-like‭; ‬always smiling and‭ ‬always happy.‭

So,‭ ‬sure enough,‭ ‬he sent me a picture,‭ ‬after I sent one to him.‭ ‬It took me about a week before‭ ‬I could think of what to sign.‭ ‬I didn’t know what to say.‭ ‬I think I signed,‭ “‬All the best‭… ‬from Peter.‭” ‬When I received his signed photo,‭ ‬I couldn’t read his handwriting.‭

I still have it.‭ ‬It was hanging on my wall until recently until I noticed the ink fading.‭ ‬I took it down and it’s packed away for safekeeping.

Engoren:‭ ‬How did you get your first break‭?

Nero:‭ ‬In‭ ‬1960,‭ ‬RCA Victor records was looking for a male singer,‭ ‬a female singer and pianist.‭ ‬For the male singer they found John Gary,‭ ‬and the female singer was Ann-Margaret‭ – ‬that’s how she broke into show business.‭ ‬I became the pianist.

The music industry was a lot like the studio system in the Golden Age of Hollywood with movie studios like Paramount and‭ ‬MGM.‭ ‬The talent were nurtured and nursed and trained into the right roles.‭ ‬It really paid off,‭ ‬because they turned a lot of people into stars with long careers.

At that time,‭ ‬they looked for people to sign for three years.‭ ‬At the end of three years,‭ ‬if you got your foot in the door and had decent record sales,‭ ‬you had a guaranteed‭ ‬20-year career.

The industry looked toward the future,‭ ‬which no one does anymore.‭ ‬Nowadays you have to sell a million tunes or you are off the label.‭ ‬I had the hottest manager:‭ ‬Stan Greeson.‭ ‬He had a lot of experience and we were together for‭ ‬12‭ ‬years,‭ ‬from‭ ‬1960‭ ‬to‭ ‬1972,‭ ‬when he left the business.‭ ‬He was terrific.‭ ‬Everything came together at the right time.‭

I cut a demo record and he got so excited when it was finished.‭ ‬He came running out of the control booth and said,‭ “‬I’m taking this demo over to RCA right now.‭ ‬And I can guarantee you,‭ ‬you will have a contract within three days.‭ ‬And if not,‭ ‬I will take it over to Columbia or Capitol.‭”

And sure enough,‭ ‬I had a contract the next day.‭

In my wildest dreams I did not think that my original technique of combining jazz and classical styles would become commercial.‭ ‬I wasn’t trying to create a new style,‭ ‬it was just me.

‭“‬Commercial‭”‬ -‭ ‬that is the word they used.‭ ‬Traditionally,‭ ‬I was considered‭ “‬artsy,‭” ‬or for a‭ “‬niche market.‭”‬ The thought was:‭ ‬Who is going to buy this stuff‭?

The disc jokeys were the ones who made me.‭ ‬They played‭ ‬my records day and night.‭ ‬William B.‭ ‬Williams on WNEW in New York,‭ ‬in‭ ‬Make Believe BallRoom.‭ ‬Mel Baldwin in L.A.,‭ ‬and Hugh Lampman in Dallas.‭

The industry was more optimistic in those days.‭ ‬They held a long-term view,‭ ‬whereas now,‭ ‬as Bette Midler once said on the Grammys,‭ “‬Welcome to Hollywood,‭ ‬where you are as good as your last three minutes.‭”

Engoren:‭ ‬Besides Vladimir Horowitz,‭ ‬who are your other favorite musicians‭?

Nero:‭ ‬Art Tatum‭ ‬is my favorite jazz pianist.‭ ‬He was a very sophisticated player and a complete‭ ‬jazz pianist in every respect.‭ ‬He was very technical.‭ ‬Horowitz used to go to see him and was amazed.‭

Engoren:‭ ‬Do you listen to your own music‭? ‬What type of music do you listen to relax‭?

Nero:‭ ‬I‭ ‬listen to most of my music on the computer,‭ ‬and‭ ‬mostly for work.‭ ‬I download everything.‭ ‬I put on‭ ‬a good set of headphones and earbuds.‭ ‬I download the material from iTunes and that’s how I get an idea of timing,‭ ‬making cuts and listening to the music before I buy a score.‭ ‬Currently,‭ ‬I’m busy preparing programs for the‭ ‬2010-2011‭ ‬season of the Philadelphia Pops.

But usually,‭ ‬I can’t relax and listen to music because I’m analyzing everything.‭ ‬Music doesn’t relax me.‭ ‬Crossword puzzles do.‭ ‬I’ve been doing the‭ ‬New York Times crossword since I was‭ ‬15.‭

Engoren:‭ ‬Do you do it in pen‭?

Nero:‭ ‬Pen‭. ‬It’s the only way.

Engoren:‭ ‬In addition to being a prolific musician and conductor,‭ ‬I see that you invented a software program.

Nero:‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬I’m kind of a techno freak.‭ ‬I was the spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Show for‭ ‬22‭ ‬years‭ ‬and also for Tandy Corporation‭ [‬RadioShack‭]‬.‭ ‬In the late‭ ‬1970s,‭ ‬they came out with the first desktop micro home computer,‭ ‬the TRS-80.‭ ‬As a result,‭ ‬I got everything they produced.‭ ‬I have unit No.‭ ‬26.‭ ‬No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬is in the‭ ‬Smithsonian.

I also wrote relational databases even though at the time,‭ ‬I didn’t know what they were called.‭ ‬I used them to check and see what music I played during my last performance at a particular venue.‭ ‬That way I could pick out material that I didn’t play previously.

We’re in our‭ ‬31st year with the Philly Pops,‭ ‬and doing four to six programs a year and occasionally with‭ ‬run-outs,‭ ‬even more than that.‭ ‬So,‭ ‬it comes in very handy.‭

Engoren:‭ ‬Have you checked to see what you played at FAU‭ ‬10‭ ‬years ago‭?

Nero:‭ ‬I was about to do that,‭ ‬but this time I’m coming with my trio and not with a big orchestra,‭ ‬so the music selection will be different.

Engoren:‭ ‬I’d like to ask you:‭ ‬What’s on your iPod‭?

Nero:‭ ‬Actually,‭ ‬I have the Apple iTouch with‭ ‬5,000‭ ‬downloaded‭ ‬recordings.‭ ‬It’s a simple download process and plus you can access wi-fi on it.‭ ‬I use it when I don’t have my laptop with me.‭ ‬I also have three phones,‭ ‬each for a different purpose.‭ ‬I guess you could say I’m a technocrat.

Engoren:‭ ‬If you hadn’t become a musician,‭ ‬what would you have liked as a profession‭?

Nero:‭ ‬I would have become an architect.‭ ‬It’s very mathematical and structural,‭ ‬similar to music.‭ ‬A friend once said to me:‭ ‬“You’re lucky because‭ ‬you know what you want to do.‭” ‬And I said to him,‭ “‬You’re lucky,‭ ‬because you can decide what to do.‭ ‬I didn’t have much of a choice,‭ ‬because I’m riding a crest that’s pushing me in a particular direction.‭”

Engoren:‭ ‬What advice would you give to aspiring musicians in this day and age‭?

Nero:‭ ‬It is a very difficult and competitive business,‭ ‬so it all depends on how much you love what you’re doing.‭ ‬If you love what you’re doing,‭ ‬it helps to make it pay off.‭ ‬The odds are better.‭ ‬If you want to get a record made now,‭ ‬you have to really make it yourself.‭

Engoren:‭ ‬What else would you like to accomplish that you haven’t yet accomplished‭?

Nero:‭ ‬I’d like to do more piano playing and more writing.‭ ‬Coming to Florida will give me a good chance to go back to playing piano again.‭ ‬I’ve been doing‭ ‬so much conducting and learning music for these programs,‭ ‬I haven’t had time to devote to my playing.‭

I enjoy it.‭ ‬When I play for a‭ ‬[Philly Pops‭] ‬concert,‭ ‬I have other things I have to think about:‭ ‬i.e.,‭ ‬conducting the singers.‭ ‬Sometimes we have‭ ‬300‭ ‬people on stage.‭ ‬We have a chorus,‭ ‬a gospel choir,‭ ‬soloists,‭ ‬the orchestra,‭ ‬etc.,‭ ‬so I am looking forward to simply playing the piano.

Engoren:‭ ‬Looking back over your long and varied career,‭ ‬are there particular highlights that emerge‭?

Nero:‭ ‬I’m very passionate about music and women.‭ ‬Unfortunately,‭ ‬sometimes I hold people to a high standard of excellence,‭ ‬as I do with music.‭ ‬This is an artistic syndrome where I can fall madly in love and everything‭ ‬is great until it’s not.‭ ‬This has been my downfall.‭ ‬That’s why I’m still working.‭ ‬There’s always a price to pay.‭

But,‭ ‬I don’t look back.‭ ‬I’m always looking ahead to the next concert.‭ ‬If I look back‭ ‬I see something I didn’t like.‭ ‬I don’t believe in resting on my laurels.‭ ‬I always strive for excellence.‭ ‬That’s what they taught us at Julliard.

I always try to make it better each time.‭ ‬It’s a disease.‭ ‬I’m never happy with what I’ve done.‭ ‬I’m always thinking,‭ ‬I’ll be better tomorrow.‭

Peter Nero‭ will appear with his trio Friday at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens,‭ ‬and on Saturday at the Carole and Barry Kaye Performing Arts Auditorium at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$50-$55.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬561-278-7677‭ ‬for the Eissey Theatre show,‭ ‬and‭ ‬1-800-564-9539‭ ‬for the FAU show.

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