December 10, 2018

Songs in the key of Nero

It may be hard to believe there was a time when George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” now a durable fixture of the American and international concert repertory, was thought of as suspect — an unclassifiable mix of concert music and jazz whose popularity seemed offensive to highbrow audiences. 

Pianist and conductor Peter Nero can relate. Classically trained in pop and jazz, Nero is something of a hybrid, and record companies had a hard time marketing his irrepressibly inventive, technically fluent and unpredictable playing.

“Today I’d be called a ‘crossover artist,’ ” Nero, 81, said recently from his home in Philadelphia. “But in 1961, RCA Victor [now RCA Records] didn’t know what to do with me, so they started by changing my name from Bernard Nierow to Peter Nero.”

Gershwin’s immortal “Rhapsody” caps off Nero’s upcoming concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in Northridge on Nov. 14. Called “Peter Nero: Gershwin in Hollywood,” the program is actually in two parts, with “Gershwin on Broadway” kicking off the program’s first half. The show also features Michael Barnett, Nero’s principal bass player for nearly 30 years, and vocalist Katherine Strohmaier. 

The Hollywood half of the program includes Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” composed, with lyrics by his brother Ira, for the 1937 film “Shall We Dance.” That score represents Gershwin’s sole Academy Award for best original song. Most of the Hollywood-era songs, including “A Foggy Day” from 1937’s “A Damsel in Distress,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” another classic from “Shall We Dance,” appeared posthumously — George Gershwin died in July 1937 at age 38.

Nero’s immersion in Gershwin’s work deepened with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Nero was 17 when he appeared on national television performing “Rhapsody” with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned the piece in 1924. 

“Gershwin was ahead of his time,” Nero said. “He synthesized classical and jazz and took it a step further. No matter how many times I play that piece, I marvel at the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure he conceived.”

Nero, who won a Grammy for best new artist in 1961, went on to record some 70 albums, including the hit “Summer of ’42.” His many television appearances included guest spots on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

Early on, Nero was one of the most respected of Gershwin interpreters. In 1972, he won an Emmy for the NBC special “S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Gershwin.” Classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to attend his concerts and the two quickly became good friends. 

Thor Steingraber, VPAC executive director, said Nero — who was founding music director and conductor of the Philly Pops orchestra for many years — is one of the most decorated figures in the history of the popular American  songbook. “He’s walking history, with an encyclopedic mind,” Steingraber said.

Indeed, Nero has worked with luminaries including Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Mathis, Elton John and Rod Stewart. 

Born Bernard Nierow in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Ukrainian-Jewish father who was a social worker and a Sephardic-Jewish mother who taught Spanish and French in New York City high schools, Nero said his interest in jazz was looked down upon at home.

“My mother wanted me to become a classical pianist,” said Nero, who, as a 13-year-old, won a scholarship to the Juilliard School preparatory division. “But I was a rebel. When I thought she wasn’t listening, I started messing around with a tune on the radio called ‘Bumble Boogie.’ It was ‘Flight of
the Bumblebee’ played in boogie-woogie fashion. It was a hit record. In those days, you could have a No. 1 hit on piano.” 

After four years at Juilliard prep and the High School of Music and Art, Nero began to get gigs while  attending Brooklyn College. “I grew up in the clubs,” he said. “In 1957, I played an eight-week gig in the lounge of the Tropicana in Las Vegas. Then they extended it, so I took an apartment and did my college work there.” 

Nero wound up playing the Tropicana for two years while earning his bachelor’s degree in music. He was 23 years old.

“We were part of the casino, and nobody listened,” he said. “People sat with their backs to us, watching the celebrities walk by … It was a great place to experiment.”

Nero’s teachers and mentors include Abram Chasins, the late concert pianist, lecturer and music director of WQXR (the radio station owned for many years by The New York Times), and Chasins’ wife, pianist Constance Keene, who took Nero on as a student for five years. Chasins, who actually knew Gershwin, wrote of the composer’s “incredible ease, joyous spontaneity and originality at the piano.” 

The same can be said of Nero’s striking improvisational technique. “I started improvising when I was 12,” he said, “and decided I’m going to do my own thing. I’ve always kept my chops in shape, so I can execute the ideas that appear in my head.”

“Baruch,” Nero’s Hebrew name, means “blessed.” And Nero’s hands are still blessedly nimble, while his mind remains sharp. “I do the crosswords,” Nero said, by way of explanation. “Eighty is the new 60.” 

But he’s been noticing that his posture at the piano isn’t what it used to be. “My teachers [Chasins and Keene] watched Horowitz at the piano, and they taught me his perfect weight transfer for hands and keys by using the body. But as I get older, I’m starting to hunch over the instrument,” he said. “It’s what nature does to the body.”

As conductor of the Philly Pops orchestra, Nero would talk to the audience, a tradition he’ll continue for his upcoming VPAC gig. Nero said he also will be available after the concert for a meet-and-greet. 

“I learned from Victor Borge how to engage an audience,” he  said. “I can talk and conduct at the same time.”

As Nero jumped back and forth during the conversation from one era to another, he could be hard to keep up with. One moment, he recalled his teacher, famed Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling; in another, he turned to affectionate memories of his friend and mentor Henry Mancini. 

Given Nero’s long history in the world of classical, pop and jazz music, one might wonder why there is no memoir from the ebullient pianist, conductor and raconteur.

“You wanna write it?” Nero asked, in a brash Brooklyn accent. “Every time I get started telling one story, I think of another. Besides, I would have to tell the truth, and that could get me into trouble.”