Pictured Above: Vocal soloists Brik Liam, Ashley Jayy, and Chester Gregory with The No Name Pops during the Let’s Groove Tonight concert. Photo Credit: Bachrach Photography.
A Very Philly Christmas with The No Name Pops
By: Lori Goldstein
Writer Lori Goldstein shares the No Name Pops experience first-ear/hand
Thinking back to Saturday, October 28, 2023, I witnessed something I’ve never seen before in Verizon Hall: a conga line. Audience members happily hopped on the “Soul Train,” ushers danced in the aisles, as guest conductor Herb Smith led The No Name Pops orchestra in their debut concert at the Kimmel Center. Titled Let’s Groove Tonight, the concert was a celebration of not only the best of Motown and the Philly Sound, but also the reincarnation of the Philly Pops musicians as a new performance entity: The No Name Pops.
Preceding the concert, the beloved anchorman of Action News, Jim Gardner, proclaimed, “We are here to enjoy, to appreciate, and support our 58 brilliant musicians who just want to play, who just need to play so much that they have created a new pops orchestra. And if they want to play, I sure as heck want to listen. It is all about the music, pure and simple…You and I are participants in the start of a new journey that hopefully will reestablish Philadelphia as the home of the great pops orchestra.” As the latest appointee to The No Name Pops’ board, Gardner will support the orchestra’s future endeavors while it preserves the legacy of Peter Nero.
Pictured Above: Action News anchorman Jim Gardner. Photo Credit: Bachrach Photography.
Last November, Encore Series, Inc., the Philly Pops’ management company, announced that it owed almost half a million in rent to the Kimmel Center and another half million to other vendors. Encore would not file for bankruptcy; instead, it ceased operations and cancelled the February and March 2023 concerts. It still owes the musicians back pay for the streaming of their holiday concert, the pension contribution for that work, as well as union dues deducted from their October and December 2022 paychecks.
Unwilling to let the music stop, the musicians began weekly Zoom meetings to discuss their future. “We were working with a union organizer,” recalls violist Marjorie Goldberg, “who basically said, tell your musicians you’ve got three choices: someone from POKC [the newly merged Philadelphia Orchestra Kimmel Center] will take you over, she [Karen Corbin, president and CEO of the Philly Pops] can save it somehow but probably not, or you can take matters into your own hands.”
The musicians chose the third option: They spent the summer of 2023 giving almost 25 free concerts all around the city—including performances at South Street Headhouse Shambles, Philadelphia Performing Arts: String Theory Charter School, on WXPN’s “Free at Noon” series–to thank the season-pass ticket holders who were shortchanged by Encore. The musicians wanted to say, “We’re sad you’re owed money, we are so sorry. Let’s fundraise and get ourselves to the Kimmel Center,” says Goldberg, who joined the Philly Pops in 2003, under the baton of the legendary pianist-conductor, Peter Nero.
The musicians also consulted Jeff Woodruff, retired executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony, who advised them to build a team. The team currently is a 12-member board. Through the generosity of pro bono legal, accounting, public relation, and web design services, The No Name Pops emerged as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. “We believe that our great city should have pops music, so we came together,” said Jonathan Fink, cellist and founding board member, with the mission to “provide this style of music to Philadelphia.”
Pictured Above: The No Name Pops. Photo Credit: Bachrach Photography.
Looking for new leadership, the musicians invited 32-year-young Matthew Koveal to join the board as executive director. Koveal had been the Philly Pops’ manager of artistic operations and associate director of programming and production for two years until its demise. “I did pretty much anything that involved something happening onstage. I worked with the conductors, the musicians, guest artists—making sure productions went as smoothly as possible,” says Koveal.
It was Goldberg who invited Koveal to sit in on the musicians’ meetings. She had worked closely with him since he was the personnel manager and she was a union officer. “I knew how good he was, I had a lot in common with him because we [both] loved our product, and we knew from looking at sold-out audiences that there’s no way that this should die, and who could let it die…[There are] orchestras that can’t fill a house and we could fill it every concert. We had 20,000 people see our holiday shows last season.”
Pictured Above: Executive Director of The No Name Pops, Matt Koveal. Photo Credit: Contributed.
What makes Koveal such a natural arts administrator is that he’s also a musician. He was working on his master’s degree in trumpet performance at the University of Colorado when an injury to a lip muscle sidelined his career. His teacher, a member of the Colorado Symphony, told him that the orchestra had posted an administrative job. Koveal applied for the position and served as manager of artistic operations for three years until the pandemic arrived. During that time, he produced videos of sermons and performances at Trinity Methodist Church in Denver.
On the day that Koveal and his wife, violinist Magee Capsouto, permanently returned to the East Coast, he got his job with the Philly Pops. “His production experience and his artistic administration experience are excellent, especially because he’s a young man,” says Goldberg. “And young people don’t always have that.”
Koveal has given The No Name Pops what the Encore administration could not or would not give. “The musicians realized that I cared, they very quickly attached on to me…I didn’t really do anything [other] than provide them what they deserve. I listen to them. If they have something to complain about, I listen and I try my best” to solve the problem.
“There’s a paradox to that,” says Koveal. “A) You should do it because you care. B) If you’re a good business person you would know the better you treat your employees, the better product you get from them. It seems like a home-run to me. I’ve now been part of both organizations, and so I can see how much better they’re playing, not to say they couldn’t play well back then, but…they weren’t passionate about what they were doing. And now we’re fighting for our lives, and we’re enjoying the process. It’s just incredible the level of artistry that they are showing right now.”
As an executive director, Koveal knew his initial objective was to “maintain trust as much as possible, or regain trust. The musicians trust me, the board trusts me. It’s easy to get trust in the beginning, but it’s hard to maintain,” and he’d already witnessed what happens when you lose it.
“Culture was really important to me. We are a transparent organization from top to bottom, we tell people our finances, we tell people what we’re thinking. I’ve learned that if you just tell the truth all the time, nobody can be upset with you for what the truth is as long as you tell them.”
Pictured Above: L-R: Conductor Herb Smith and Executive Director Matt Koveal of The No Name Pops. Photo Credit: Bachrach Photography.
Koveal was also intent on building a democratic environment. As a technical specialist at Apple, he had learned that “you can’t give negative feedback to somebody until you’ve given them positive feedback, so you can build up what they call ‘your emotional bank.’ If we can build this culture in which we’re open to hearing what people have to say regardless of whether we believe it or not, then you can get much further.”
“It’s trickling down to the musicians. They’re not afraid to tell me if they’re upset about something. If they tell me something’s bad, I’ll just fix it, or I say, ‘this is why I can’t fix it’ or ‘these are my challenges,’ so now the musicians understand where I’m coming from and I understand where they’re coming from.” To ensure that their voices are heard, there are four musicians on the board: cellists Brooke Beazley and Jonathan Fink, flutist Ronald Kerber, and timpanist David Nelson.
Bob Gravener joined the trumpet section of the Philly Pops on July 4, 1993. He would have celebrated his 30th anniversary with the orchestra if events had not transpired the way they did. Nevertheless, he’s happy to celebrate year one with The No Name Pops.
When audience fans screamed for joy as the musicians took their places onstage, Bob and his fellow musicians were thrilled to be back at the Kimmel Center for their inaugural concert. He attributed this success partly to Koveal’s managerial style: “Matt positively influences individuals while showing respect to all the No Name musicians. I appreciate his work in helping to create commitment and direction to this reinvented pops orchestra.”
About the name: There was strong consideration for the organization to be named the Liberty Bell Pops, since Peter Nero, who had conducted the orchestra for more than 30 years, famously ended each concert with the “Liberty Bell March.” However, legal research uncovered nine pages of trademark issues due to corporate entities using “Liberty Bell” in their name. When it came time to draw up the paperwork for the first hire request, Koveal didn’t know what to call the orchestra, so he typed in “The No Name Pops.”
“Some people love it, some people hate it, but they never forget it,” quips Koveal. It was his wife who pointed out “we don’t need a name, because the music speaks for itself. It shows we have no boundaries with music, we’ll play anything and everything…I’m now realizing it signifies much more than if you’re putting yourself inside of a box and saying this is exactly what we are right here.”
When Koveal was standing in line for complimentary tickets at the box office on October 28, he overheard conversations that told him many ticket holders had never been to the Kimmel Center, nor to a pops concert before. The reality of the economic barrier means that an important element of The No Name Pops’ mission is to perform at venues all around the Philadelphia region. “We will always have a place at Verizon Hall,” avers Matt. “We know that [some] folks won’t go there, so we plan to go to them.” He named the Mann and the Met as possible performance spaces.
What’s next on The No Name Pops’ inaugural season is A Very Philly Christmas, a 9-concert series beginning December 1 through December 23.
Pictured Above: A Very Philly Christmas‘ Conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez. Photo Credit: Bachrach Photography.
“We’re so grateful that the Kimmel Center hired us to play the holiday show,” says Goldberg. “They’re producing it. We’re grateful that they’ve given our musicians that opportunity to work, and that we have the opportunity to collaborate with them on these concerts.”
It’s a different program from their past holiday shows, and it promises to be an extravaganza, including Broadway vocalists, dancers, The No Name Pops Chorus, and the St. Thomas Gospel Choir of Philadelphia–all conducted by Enrico Lopez-Yañez, a conductor renowned for his showmanship and flair.
“I am so excited to bring a brand-new tradition to Philadelphia for audiences of all ages,” says conductor Lopez-Yañez. “A Very Philly Christmas will transport you to a holiday wonderland through the magic of song and dance with a special Philadelphia spin!”
Lopez-Yañez is the Principal Pops Conductor of the Nashville Symphony and Pacific Symphony, as well as the Principal Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Presents. This season Lopez-Yañez has been named Principal Pops Conductor Designate of the Detroit Symphony, a position he will begin in the 2024-2025 season.
“We cherish our role as a home for the holidays where our community and audiences can enjoy the spirit of the season through the arts and experience the power of togetherness,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center. “Our new presentation of A Very Philly Christmas will keep audiences delightfully engaged from start to finish with music from the musicians of The No Name Pops, dance, laughter, and a distinct magic only found in Philadelphia.”
Audiences will hear holiday classics and pop favorites in sparkling new arrangements. The No Name Pops will deliver sizzling, swinging, and soaring renditions of favorite holiday tunes, including “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Go Tell It on The Mountain,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” (and some surprise new favorites). And of course, expect a visit from the jolliest one of all, Santa! It’s a multi-generational, one-of-a-kind artistic experience this holiday season.
What lies beyond the Very Philly Christmas for The No Name Pops is yet to be revealed. As Koveal coyly puts it, “The best part about our organization is we know what we don’t know. And what we don’t know is what the future holds, so we’re all open to being flexible and morphing into the ensemble that we become over time.”