You know the old saying, “I would watch that man conduct the phone book”? Well maybe we paraphrased slightly, but it certainly applies to Steven Reineke, the music director of the New York Pops and the principal pops conductor for both the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Canada and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Reineke, who is also a composer himself, is most widely known for his effusive dance moves and obvious passion onstage as he brings to life a wide variety of popular scores. We caught up with the charismatic conductor earlier this month following a tribute to Stephen Schwartz, celebrating the acclaimed composer’s 65th birthday as well as the 10th year of his Broadway megahit, “Wicked.” You can see Reineke bring his musical magic to Carnegie Hall on April 29 at 7 p.m. as he leads the Pops’ 30th birthday gala, closing out the 2012-2013 season (www.newyorkpops.org).
Do you believe that there’s a disconnect between today’s younger audiences and formal musical performances?
No, I don’t believe so, [not] for a Pops concert. It’s certainly my mission to welcome a younger demographic into the concert hall, and we’re seeing evidence that that’s happening. We definitely have subscribers in an older age bracket who have been around supporting the orchestra for the last 30 years. The programming we’re doing – [like] a Stephen Schwartz concert — will attract a lot of people. But when we even do Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, I pair that with some of the great young talent that’s out there today. And that brings in a lot of younger audience members. We’ve done a number of shows that have brought in younger people as well. I like to do something for everybody.
When you were young, were you already into musical theater?
I was. I was always into all kinds of music from a very early age. I started to play music when I was 10 years old. Musical theater really hit me early in high school, when I really found a great love of that. But there are so many types of music that I love.
And were you a fan of Stephen Schwartz?
Oh yeah, I was a big fan of Stephen Schwartz. I knew all the “Godspell” music early on, because that musical was very popular. In college, I was a trumpet major and I played trumpet in the pit orchestra of our college production of “Pippin,” and I remember how much I just fell in love with that musical. That’s always been one of my all-time favorites, so I said: “Who is Stephen Schwartz?” I really wanted to know everything about him and everything he wrote. There’s so much great music. And we hadn’t heard from him for a while when he moved to Hollywood and started doing all those Disney films. I didn’t know if he was going to write another musical, and then — boom! — here comes “Wicked,” which is his masterpiece. It’s just absolutely brilliant.
Have you seen the revival of “Pippin” that’s now on Broadway?
Yes, I went to see the new “Pippin” a couple weeks ago. I really loved this new production of it. It’s not updated musically; there was one other performance where they tinkered with the music to make it sound more modern, but I liked the fact that they kept the sound of “Pippin” from its original production. But the visuals and the storytelling and the way they added the circus performers is stunning.
Do you enjoy conducting the same kind of music you enjoy composing?
Yes, I always love conducting one of my own pieces — it’s always a great, great thrill. To conduct all different types of music everything from ballet scores to film scores to big band jazz to movie music, everything takes a little bit different skill set and different nuances and that’s always a great challenge.
Do you have any advice for youngsters who want to get into the field?
Pick another job. [Laughs] No, not really. The best advice for being in the arts in general is perseverance. We all get shot down a lot in the arts. When you’re younger you hear a lot of times “you’re going to be a starving artist” or “you should really get a degree in education so you have something to fall back on.” I never liked that philosophy. You really have to know in your heart of hearts that you love this and you have to be prepared to hear no a lot of times, and get up the next day and still go out there and try to make it. Because then one day you’re going to get that "yes" you’ve been looking for.
I think it’s evident that in your heart of hearts you have a passion for this. What else do you ascribe to your success? Because people are really drawn to you personally.
Oh boy, I don’t know exactly what that is. I do try to break down the barriers between the audience and the orchestra and the performers so that it feels pretty much – even when we’re in a large hall, like Carnegie Hall or when I’m directing the NSO at the Kennedy Center, that I like it to feel a lot more intimate like we’re just doing music in a living room – like I often do – for friends. So I want it to be very welcoming and inviting to people but I don’t know, I get told all the time that I just have great dance moves when I’m up there, so that helps at times.
Speaking of NSO – you’re taking the Schwartz concert down there?
That is correct – you can come to Washington, D.C., where we’ll be playing three performances of [the Schwartz tribute] at the Kennedy Center.
What’s up next?
This is the end of our season, so I’m really excited for our 30th anniversary gala. It’s going to be such a star-studded cast — and by honoring Frank Loesser, Jule Styne and Danny Kaye, we have an incredible canon of music to pick from.
Does that mean you get a break?
We have a little bit of a break. I don’t have much of a rest, because I also conduct the NSO and the Toronto Symphony [Orchestra]. And my summers, I guest conduct all over the continent. But the NY Pops will have a little bit of time off as we gear up for next season to open in October.
I’m ready for a cocktail.