By Ruth Rovner
For its final program of the season, the ever-popular Philly Pops recreates the hits of classic rock bands of the 1970s and ’80s, such as Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and Journey.
But for this concert titled Pops Rocks, it won’t be bands playing these classics — but instead, a 65-piece orchestra.
Pops musician Brian Brown, a tuba player, recalls hearing those bands on the radio when he was a student at Abraham Lincoln High School.
“These were the big popular bands of those decades, so a lot of them were radio standards, and I heard them very often,” said Brown, a Northeast native in his 11th season with the Pops. “And now it will be fun to play the music I grew up with.”
It will also be quite a novelty for the tuba player.
“The bands that played this music never normally included a tuba,” he said. “So I’m curious about how the arrangements will work.”
As he does with all Pops concerts, he starts to prepare in his home studio after he receives a copy of his own part several weeks in advance.
“But we don’t see how our part fits into the whole until our first rehearsal,” he explained. “Often, this is a challenge because we usually use original arrangements so we don’t have recordings available to listen to.”
The Pops has only two rehearsals for each subscription program — on the Tuesday and Thursday afternoons preceding the first concert on Friday evening.
But these are experienced musicians, so they can handle the challenge.
Another challenge is keeping up with the busy and varied concert season. The Pops musicians play five subscription programs at the Kimmel Center. Each program consists of three concerts. Then there is the annual Holiday Pops, with concerts throughout the Christmas season.
Another staple is the annual July 3 concert of patriotic music. The musicians perform on an outdoor stage directly in front of Independence Hall. The concert is free and draws large crowds.
“I enjoy all of them,” Brown said.
An all-time highlight was his first concert under the baton of former music director Peter Nero.
“It was an all-Gershwin concert, and hearing Peter play Rhapsody in Blue was especially memorable,” he recalled.
It was Peter Nero who hired him 11 years ago. By then, the tuba player was a longtime freelance musician and did occasional substituting with the Philly Pops.
Then, when former tuba player Owen Metcalf retired, Brown was given the opportunity to play for Nero. He played a month of concerts as tryouts.
“Fortunately, Peter decided to keep me,” Brown said. “It’s a terrific organization, and I felt very fortunate to be invited to join. I was especially thrilled because there aren’t that many openings for the tuba.”
He is dedicated to this instrument, the largest of all the brass instruments. Growing up in Holmesburg (he now lives in Lower Mayfair), the budding young musician started playing the tuba in sixth grade at J.H. Brown Elementary School.
He still recalls the exact date of his first lesson at the school — Oct. 8, 1969 — and even remembers it was a Wednesday. His teacher was David Powers, the school’s brass instrumentalist teacher. Powers still comes on occasion to hear his former student perform.
At Lincoln, Brown played in the band. He was such a promising musician that he won a Ford Foundation grant and studied with Paul Krzywicki, the former tuba player of the Philadelphia Orchestra, throughout his high school years.
Then Brown earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the prestigious Juilliard School.
He’s been a busy musician ever since. Besides the Philly Pops, his musical activities include being principal tuba player for the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. He also is a substitute player for the Pennsylvania Ballet, Opera Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
This versatile musician also has a more unexpected activity. He is the tuba player for NFL Films, which means when NFL Films does highlight reels and documentaries — which include background music — Brown is the sole tuba player. He’s been doing this for over 25 years.
“It’s fun — it’s like gladiator music, which is what you’d expect,” he said. “You show up for recording sessions and you only see the music 30 minutes before the sessions begin.”
Besides all this, he’s the tuba professor at the University of Delaware and a lecturer in the music department at Princeton University. This devoted tuba player owns seven instruments.
“Some are for large orchestral works, others for solos, and some for chamber music,” he explained.
One of those tubas will be onstage at Verizon Hall when the Philly Pops presents Pops Rocks from May 5–7
“I’m looking forward to playing music that I grew up with,” Brown said.
But he also emphasizes that every concert is a pleasure.
“I always look forward to working with my fellow musicians, no matter what the program,” he said.
He also enjoys working under the baton of music director Michael Krajewski.
“He’s very professional but he also has a pleasant manner — and a great sense of humor.” ••
IF YOU GO…
The Philly Pops presents Pops Rocks Friday through Sunday, May 5–7, in Verizon Hall of the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce streets. The May 5 show is at 8 p.m., while the other two shows are at 3 p.m. For tickets, visit phillypops.org or call 215–893–1999.