Houston Symphony's POPS 2019-20 Season: Mostly Same Recipe; New Flavorful Additions

The 2019-20 POPS season is so good and juicy, it's got to be fattening.
The 2019-20 POPS season is so good and juicy, it's got to be fattening. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Looking at the Houston Symphony's POPS 2019-20 upcoming season, it reads like a faithful cookbook. The book's dishes may be wild and mouth-watering or steady and sturdy, yet it fills the pages with tons of dishes that always come through with substance.

We all like a little comfort food or have a dish we like to cook every now and then. The flavors work together to suite our palate. To give a little variation to a tried and true recipe, the chef may throw in a few different ingredients each time he makes it, but the basic elements stay the same. For the 2019-20 POPS season, the same step-and-repeat cooking instructions have worked well. The basic structure of the dish remains constant: the movie soundtrack shows, the artist-themed performances, etc. Yet every now and again, a chef likes to try something new. In this case, the Symphony has sprinkled its POPS season with a few extra spices to add punch and gusto.

Lesley Sabol, director of popular programming, gave the Houston Press a preview of what to expect and a little info about how the organization goes about mining for ideas.

Now entering her eighth year with the institution, she says, "When I got here, what I wanted to bring was quality. That has been my guiding principal. I don’t bring anything that isn’t our highest quality possible. POPS is looked down on, but if you keep the quality as high as possible, it shows."

Sabol is correct somewhat in her assessment that POPS can be viewed by music purists and naysayers as a dilution of the art form, but there is another argument that POPS style programs can be both enjoyable and an entry point to learning more about other styles of symphonic music.

To put it in other words, don't sleep on the Houston Symphony's POPS series. This team of musicians and creative team members is far more versatile than just playing classical music — although they do that exquisitely well, too. The artists may have gone to school for classical training, yet they are skilled enough to vary their styles and still draw a large crowd with their wildly entertaining shows. The proof, to put it in culinary terms, is in the pudding. POPS remains one of the most recognizable and well-attended seasons of the symphony's many offerings.

"That’s what POPS can do, it can bridge the gap between pop culture and classical music. A lot of those people [attending POPS concerts] have never been to the hall before, and the audience response is intense. They love to hear the sounds of the orchestra...and that’s what we can do. We provide a unique and awesome experience for people that happens to include an orchestra," Sabol said.
click to enlarge Jones Hall is home to the Houston Symphony, one of the premier orchestras in the country. - PHOTO BY PATRICK FELLER VIA FLICKR
Jones Hall is home to the Houston Symphony, one of the premier orchestras in the country.

A unique and awesome experience it is. And with that, the menu has been set for the upcoming season, and the salivary glands are pumping at 100 percent, so let's dive on in:

The first of these standout ingredients is An Evening with Renée Elise Goldsberry. The Broadway powerhouse is best known for creating the role of Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton for which she won a Tony Award. The chanteuse has also landed roles in television and film. Expect nothing short of a night full of show tunes and powerful vocals with songs ranging from The Lion King, Rent and of course Hamilton. What's better is Goldsberry touts her Houston upbringing, so expect this to be an especially meaningful and intimate performance.

For a more subtle taste, Rick Steves' Europe: A Symphonic Journey steps away from the razzle dazzle of the traditional POPS fare. Best-selling author and PBS star Steves will serve as a travel guide with breathtaking video footage of Europe as the orchestra performs classical favorites like Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube Waltz" and Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Sabol mentions that each country displayed will have a representative composer on the program as Steves walks the audience through his travels. The departure from contemporary to classical music is a slight daring choice for POPS, but the video presentation and guest speaker help to retain that familiar POPS experience.

Up next, grab the light saber and Darth Vader helmet for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - in Concert. While this movie franchise is not this writer's favorite flavor (Go ahead...fight me on it), this combination of displaying movies while the orchestra plays the score is a move that has worked out well for the organization in the past. This looks to be a crowd favorite.

Sabol says, "Star Wars has always been a popular brand. We did 'A New Hope' to great success, and we’re continuing the series. The soundtracks get progressively longer and harder, but it’s exciting to hear this score live with the film."
click to enlarge Jingle all the way down to Jones Hall for Very Merry POPS, with a special guest appearance from you know who. - PHOTO BY ANTHONY RATHBUN
Jingle all the way down to Jones Hall for Very Merry POPS, with a special guest appearance from you know who.
Photo by Anthony Rathbun
The group closes out 2019 with the familiar Very Merry Pops. The majority of the programming will be what we've come to expect:  the familiar holiday songs that impart the magic of the season - along with one new twist. Fans will enjoy a commissioned piece titled "Glad Tidings," which is a musical and narrative telling of the Christmas story packed with classic festive carols. While many of Houston's performing arts groups perform the same production year after year — seriously, how many times can one sit through The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol? — it's nice to see some variation with this commissioned piece.

Get ready for a burst of flavor for the second half of the season. The symphony ushers in 2020 with a celebration of Frank Sinatra's greatest songs in Sinatra and Beyond. The music of Ol' Blue Eyes - via vocalist and pianist Tony DeSare - will fill Jones Hall with Rat Pack swagger and standards like "Come Fly with Me," "It Was a Very Good Year" and "New York, New York." He returns to the Houston Symphony for the third time in the last four years, with all concerts receiving rave reviews. For this one, don't expect an impersonation of Sinatra. Rather, it will be a nod to the life, legacy and of course the timeless music he made.  DeSare has three top ten Billboard jazz albums under his belt and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, NPR, A Prairie Home Companion, the Today Show and his music has been posted by social media celebrity juggernaut, George Takei. DeSare has also collaborated with Youtube icons Postmodern Jukebox.
click to enlarge Tone DeSare will make the crowd swoon to the music of Frank Sinatra. - PHOTO BY VINCENT SOYEZ
Tone DeSare will make the crowd swoon to the music of Frank Sinatra.
Photo by Vincent Soyez

As if that isn't enough to whet anyone's palate, the next concert will leave a lingering, savory taste with Unforgettable: Celebrating the Nat King Cole Centennial. Guest vocalist Ryan Shaw returns to the orchestra after last appearing two years ago in a July 4 concert to bring the warm, velvet voice to life. Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the singer's birthday to the tune of  “When I Fall in Love,” “Mona Lisa,” “Stardust,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and many more.

Taking a break from the tributes to individual performers, the orchestra kicks the spice up a notch with Whole Lotta Shakin': Swing to Rock with Dave Bennett. The toe-tapping and hip-gyrating tunes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Glenn Miller and more. Principal POPS Conductor Steven Reineke frequently comments that shows like this are meant to be a party. Maybe this time, the crowd will dance and sing in the aisles. The real delight is vocalist, pianist, clarinetist and guitarist Bennett, a jazz clarinet player who names Alice Cooper, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Chris Isaak among his influences.  Now, this sounds like one to most definitely keep on the calendar.

If that doesn't leave music lovers thirsty for more, then Aretha: Queen of Soul certainly will. Capathia Jenkins, the Broadway, television and film star most recently seen with the symphony last season during The Ella Fitzgerald Songbook, will showcase Aretha Franklin's canon with power, charisma, and most of all "Respect." Need we say more?
Aretha Franklin in 2014 - PHOTO BY MARC BRUBAKER
Aretha Franklin in 2014
Photo by Marc Brubaker

The cherry on top is the final concert: The Best of John Williams - Star Wars & More with Chorus! Williams penned the music that forever will remain as not only the soundtrack to some of the best movies but also as an earworm to anyone who grew up during his heyday. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones and the previously mentioned Star Wars are just the starting point for his miles-long list of credentials. (Now that you've read this list of movies, you've already got at least one theme song running through your head. Am I right?) Plus, the 100-member Houston Symphony Chorus will provide a nice finishing touch to this buffet of music. This trip down memory lane will be well worth the trip to Jones Hall.

Just like a fine dining establishment, the Houston Symphony is serving their 2019-20 POPS Season in the choice of either a 6-course or 9-course variety. The full 2019-20 schedule is as follows:

  • An Evening with Renée Elise Goldsberry: Friday, September 6 - Sunday, September 8 (9-Concert package only)
  • Rick Steves' Europe: A Symphonic Journey: Friday, October 11 - Sunday, October 13
  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - In Concert: Friday, November 8 - Sunday, November 10
  • Very Merry Pops: Friday, December 13 - Sunday, December 15
  • Sinatra and Beyond: Friday, January 3 - Sunday, January 5 (9-Concert package only)
  • Unforgettable: Celebrating the Nat King Cole Centennial: Friday, February 28 - Sunday, March 1
  • Whole Lotta Shakin': Swing to Rock with Dave Bennett: Friday March 20 - Sunday, March 22
  • Aretha: Queen of Soul: Friday, April 17 - Sunday April 19
  • The Best of John Williams - Star Wars & More with Chorus!: Friday, May 22 - Sunday, May 24 (9-Concert package only)
Like we said, the recipe for the season is a stable go-to, and the extra flavors and spices throughout the season will make this one well worth trying.

Shows start at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, visit or call 713-224-7575. Season tickets: $156 to $855 for the 6-concert package; $225 to $1,233 for the 9-concert package.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd