Symphony brings case of disco fever to Heinz Hall

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 8:11 p.m.

Every era has its greatest hits, a truism pops conductor Jack Everly has explored with concert programs devoted to music of the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Disco finally gets its day, and nights, this week at Heinz Hall when Everly returns to the Pops with the next installment of his survey of popular music across the decades.

“This homage to disco includes ‘I Will Survive,' an anthem of not only quite a few pops divas but the decade as well,” he says.

Everly will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops in “Disco Days & Boogie Nights” at concerts May 2 to 5 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Vocalists include Farah Alvin, Anne Beck and Chapter 6, an all-male ensemble.

“The impetus for this program was the music of the entire decade of the '70s,” Everly says. “It's great fun to relive some of those pieces, especially given those arrangements of the time. Disco divas, of course, and the BeeGees. But the Carpenters were a big part of the '70s and that's as far away from disco as you can get.”

The program also includes John Lennon's “Imagine” arranged for orchestra, Marvin Hamlisch's “The Way We Were,” sung by Alvin and medleys of movie and television-show themes.

The ABBA medley includes three numbers, “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes It All” and “Waterloo.” In addition, their “Mamma Mia” will be part of the opening medley, which is called “Prelude to a Decade.”

Selecting the repertoire is only one part of putting together a successful concert program.

“The challenge is always the same one, where is the arc?” Everly says. “How do you build the first act and the second act? Which songs stand alone, and which ones are to be arranged into medleys, to give that music fulfillment? Perhaps one doesn't spend a full five minutes with ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.' ”

Everly is also an arranger who pays close attention to the original sounds. Sometimes, he even has been able to draw upon old sets of parts that have been preserved.

“For this program, we've gone back to original recordings and either transcribed them or mimic them. We can certainly enhance them because we have more than string and rhythm sections.”

Everly points out that the '70s were not an electronic music decade, even in disco arrangements.

“In the recent production of ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' at the Palace Theatre in New York City there were no real live strings. Well, they were wrong,” he says. “People came out of the woodwork who had played those sessions and all the string work was live. Most often, string sections were part of disco arrangements.”

Although the conductor sometimes enjoyed disco, it wasn't central to him at the time.

“I started to pursue my professional career in the '70s. The disco thing started when I was in college,” he recalls. “When I got to (graduate school) at Indiana University, Bloomington, (Ind.), it was part of the popular culture. Now and then it was fun, aside from hearing Ethel Merman's disco album and being appalled and slightly amused by it. Disco was an amusement, as opposed to anything I took terribly seriously, back then.”

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.

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