Salt Lake Pops: making orchestras cool again

Published: Saturday, Sept. 21 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake Pops at the "Firework" video shoot, featuring David Osmond and Aubree Oliverson.

Emily Pearl Photography

Salt Lake Pops Studio Orchestra is revamping the definition of orchestral music, one song, YouTube video and concert at a time.

“We’re not a typical orchestra,” said orchestra director Nathaniel Drew.

Normally, one could expect to find strings, brass, woodwind and percussion instruments in an orchestra. But what about synths, a drum set, laptops and iPads?

For oboist, orchestra president and personnel manager Nicole Marriott, “Salt Lake Pops combines the orchestral with the pop world and gives more possibilities to both.”

While there are a few other pops orchestras scattered throughout the world that have garnered large followings and been established for a while, like in Boston or Korea, Salt Lake Pops has made up for lost time.

The group, only in its second year, has made over 13 YouTube videos, released an album and held numerous concerts. It has covered songs by popular artists like Imagine Dragons, Katy Perry, Evanescence and Bruno Mars, to name a few, while also playing some original compositions. It has also collaborated with local talent like Lindsey Stirling, Alex Boye and David Osmond for music videos.

“We do a lot more related to technology,” Marriott said. “We perform with videos showing, we’ve had light shows, glow sticks. Our concerts are more like what you’d see in a country, pop or rock concert. … It’s pretty rare.”

A rarity that people are responding to in a big way. To date, Salt Lake Pops’ YouTube videos have amassed more than 3 million views.

On the reason for the growing popularity, Drew said, “I have certain standards when it comes to picking music. We usually pick pop songs that have over 50 million views on YouTube. It’s just a good way of knowing it’s current and that people are listening to it.

“We also look for songs that don’t have bad lyrics and have positive meanings.”

Drew — who has interned with famous composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard and composed music for commercials, TV shows, movies and other projects — originally wanted to create an orchestra simply to “record the sounds” and “help support local talent.”

In working with local high school music teachers, he realized that more people, namely young people, cared less and less about this particular genre of music. His motivation shifted, and now one of the group’s biggest goals is to help others appreciate the value of orchestras. This is done by mixing traditional classical instrumentation with music from the 21st century — to help keep orchestral music from falling off the grid. Salt Lake Pops has found a way to reach young audiences while still maintaining the integrity and quality of orchestral music.

While the group members performs popular music and incorporates technology into performances, Drew says in a way they are actually revisiting what it meant to be in an orchestra when musicians started playing in them.

“Two hundred years ago, orchestras were playing mostly new music, and the concerts could get rowdy. It was more like what a rock concert is like today,” Drew said. “I’m trying to bring the orchestra back to what it was as its inception, but also keep it evolving and new. I want to bring it back to being fun again.

“We’d rather have our performances be like an exciting film and not just a ‘fold your arms and watch’ concert.”

“Nate goes for a very big epic sound,” Marriott laughed. “So the music that we play is very exciting. …He’s got a lot of big ideas, a lot of big things in mind for this group for the future.”

Members of the orchestra come from Salt Lake and Utah County and range in age from 50 down to as young as high school age, with most falling in their mid-20s and 30s.

“Overall, it is a pretty young group,” Marriott said. “But young does not by any means mean inexperienced. … These people are all really dedicated.”

“I feel like Utah in the future will become a film hub, and the orchestra is a way to organize and have local talent,” Drew said. “We have the largest per capita purchasing of instruments in the nation. ... I feel like every other house here has a piano. There are so many musicians and instruments here, so there’s a lot of talent I want to show off.”

Before its Halloween concert, which will be held Oct. 25 and 26, the orchestra will be holding a contest for musicians (ages 4-25 and must be enrolled in school) to audition and possibly be a featured performer on stage with them. Sheet music is available online for free download. Pick a song to learn, record yourself playing it, upload the video to YouTube and send the video URL to saltlakepops@gmail.com.

While the millions of views and growing popularity are nice incentives for the group, Drew says the most rewarding part of this project is that the way young people view orchestras is slowly but surely changing for the better.

“I got a message once from a mother of a 5-year-old who came to one of our concerts, and she basically thanked us because her son really liked classical music, but would sometimes get bullied about it. She said he was having fun dancing the whole time, and the next morning he couldn’t stop talking about it,” Drew said. “Sure, there are some bigger more grandiose things we have done, but to me that’s the most meaningful.”

“We’re able to do more with some of these songs than the pop group can,” Marriott said. “We’re getting comments on YouTube about how people didn’t really like the original song, but after hearing our version they could appreciate the value and quality of the music.

“It’s just all around really enjoyable.”

For more information on Salt Lake Pops Studio Orchestra, the contest, music, concerts or videos, visit slpops.com.

Kate Sullivan was an intern at the Deseret News with Features and Mormon Times. She is a student at Brigham Young University. Email: ksullivan@deseretnews.com

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