Pops Goes The Music!

With dinner, drinks and dancing as part of the program, Hawaii Pops provides a perfect blend of symphonic stylings and popular music. And with Matt Catingub directing and Donna Bebber in charge of the business side, it’s a winning combo

Is Hawaii Pops in tune with the times? In the modern electronics age, when we hear so much music through earphones and can synthesize instruments on computers, will live orchestras become obsolete?


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Matt Catingub and Donna Bebber | Twain Newhart photo/Courtesy Hawaii Pops

Say it isn’t so. “It isn’t so,” declares Matt Catingub, Hawaii Pops conductor and artistic director.

Just the opposite is likely, he claims, and points to Hawaii’s own pops orchestra as an example of how electronic soundtracks magnify the superiority of live music.

“In an odd way, I feel this is an advantage for us and other presenters of large-format performances,” Catingub says. “The availability of live music on smart phones and tablets only serves to magnify the smallness of the experience. That leaves presenting music on a grand scale in a position that is advantageous, unique and something that just cannot be duplicated on a phone or tablet.”

It’s all about the quality of the experience, and Hawaii Pops reflects the desire of today’s audiences for multisensory engagement with music and live performance. Not only do we want to hear music, we want to see it, feel it and even taste it.

When Hawaii Pops was launched last September, it promised an interactive experience that takes one out of a staid concert hall into a stylish nightclub venue, complete with food, beverages and dancing.

It chose Hawaii Convention Center as its home. It was a timely and politically correct move.

The state-run convention center can be a major music center if Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s vision of diversifying its use is realized.

But this is not about government wish lists, even in an election year.

This is about the bold venture of starting an independent orchestra even while symphonic counterparts are fighting for survival. And even as Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, which grew out of the former Honolulu Symphony, presents its first pops concert March 14 at Blaisdell Concert Hall with a performance of Star Wars and More: The Best of John Williams, conducted by Stuart Chafetz.

Hawaii Pops. Hawaii Symphony. What’s the difference?

These are two separate organizations. Hawaii Pops is an independent orchestra of 38 musicians focused on the genre known as “pops” (popular) music. Hawaii Symphony has 84 musicians with an ensemble of string, brass, woodwind and percussion instruments that primarily play symphonic (classical) masterpieces.

One plays Count Basie, the other plays Beethoven.

Our focus for this article is Hawaii Pops because it’s easier to spell.

No, that’s not it.

We are intrigued with a performing arts startup that could be a community asset in the making. With a versatile, talented leader such as Catingub at the baton, who is a community asset himself, we can’t help but watch its development and nurturing.

Look at what Boston Pops did for Boston.

Hawaii Pops, launched last September, is midway through its premiere season, with three orchestra series and two mini-series completed. The response has been “incredible,” according to executive director Donna Bebber. Programs are sellouts or “SRO,” in show biz speak.

“Sponsors have been generous with in-kind services and contributions to help defray costs,” says Bebber, who administers a “just under $1 million budget.”

Major sponsors include Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hawaiian Airlines, Halekulani Corporation, Howard Hughes Corporation, Hagadone Printing, Hawaii Convention Center and Servco Lexus.

“As a nonprofit, we count on donations both large and small,” she says. “Small donors can comprise a solid base of annual giving.

“By year three (2016), we want to be at 70 percent performance-based earnings and 30 percent contributed,” the experienced fundraiser and nonprofit executive projects.

It’s an ambitious goal, but if anyone can orchestrate it, Bebber can.

She is well known in Hawaii’s fundraising community, having been involved or directly responsible for raising more than $100 million for nonprofit organizations throughout her career, including Honolulu Symphony Society, Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, among others. She was named Hawaii’s Outstanding Fundraising Professional in 1998.

In addition to the Hawaii Pops series at the convention center and Halekulani’s “Live at Lewers” lounge venues, there is the hope of collaborating with Hawaii Theatre on future programs.

When not in concert mode, Bebber notes that Hawaii Pops musicians are available for corporate meetings and convention group programs.

“You can hire the entire Hawaii Pops orchestra or any part of it,” she suggests.

Now that would be a heck of a backyard luau.

If you’ve attended recent Pops programs featuring Kealii Reichel, Amy Hanaialii, Cathy Foy and Nathan Aweau, among others, you know that the music is outstanding.

Then there is the thrill of seeing big-name artists such as Sheena Easton, Jo Dee Messina and Jack Jones.

If you were at intimate Lewers Lounge last week, you heard Robert Cazimero croon selections from the Great American Songbook including Tenderly, The Way You Look Tonight and I Only Have Eyes For You.

This was Hawaii’s own Caz as you’ve never heard him before.

Vocalists benefit from maestro Catingub’s versatility as conductor and arranger. There are few orchestra conductors who also compose music, arrange it, play it and even sing it with the verve of Catingub’s famous mom, jazz singer Mavis Rivers.

But having this range of ability allows the 52-year-old maestro to reinvent the pops concert format to be more relevant and enjoyable. He also knows that the audience is the most important instrument.

“Because of the more contemporary instrumentation, this new format allows me to have even more creativity in the pops field,” he says. “I first began this version of a pops orchestra in Los Angeles with Glendale Pops, and I am continuing it in Macon, Ga., as well with Macon Pops, and it is working splendidly well.”

As for Hawaii, he boasts, “My love of presenting local contemporary and Hawaiian artists is well documented, as I have been doing this for the past 15 years. As I have said many times before, there is no place like Hawaii when it comes to our cherished local music community.

“So many of our artists are in and of themselves world-class artists, and it is very easy to take for granted just how wonderfully talented they are. I travel the world and conduct and perform with some of the greatest orchestras, and I can assure you there is no place like Hawaii when it comes to our appreciation for local talent.”

What’s in store for the future of Hawaii Pops?

“I think we have discovered that the orchestra itself, and the themes and events we present as such, have become one of our most important assets,” Catingub says. “So in addition to presenting more world-class artists, I think audiences can come to expect some fantastic themed evenings of fun and great music.

“Some of my longtime patrons are surprised to see the availability of a dance floor, as well as food and drink. We most definitely hope to elaborate on these aspects. Our Hawaii Pops concerts are almost like combining a world-class orchestra with a top-shelf nightclub, and people are really starting to embrace the concept. We expect to announce dates for our next season soon.”

He adds, “My hope is that Hawaii Pops continues and grows with this concept. We hope to expand the numbers of performances as we grow, as well as create new and unique ways to present high-quality live entertainment for all of Hawaii.”

Hawaii Pops musician De-Shannon Higa, multi-talented trumpeter, summarizes it thus: “I love this sort of out-of-thebox thinking. The times are changing, and the old model, especially in our local marketplace, doesn’t work anymore. Attention spans have shrunk, and yet expectations have risen. That’s our world now.

“We need to be creative in our presentation if we hope to grab and keep the audience’s attention. The fact that you can have dinner, listen to great classic music and dance, too – it’s a great concept, and it’s obviously catching on, if you look at the numbers.

“Sold-out concerts – need I say more?”

Upcoming Hawaii Pops programs: Driven to Dance with Taylor Dayne, March 15. Premiere Season Finale with Al Jarreau, May 31. Jazz Songstress Tierney Sutton, Live at Lewers, April 18 and 19. Information and tickets:; phone 523-7677.