Chafetz, CSO ready for annual Pops Concert

Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz, usually the principal timpanist, leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra during the 2014 Independence Day Pops Concert in the Amphitheater.

Although he juggles two of the most important jobs in the orchestra, Stuart Chafetz said he hardly notices a difference.

“I say to myself I go from two sticks down to one,” he said.

Chafetz, normally the principal timpanist for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, moves from the back of the orchestra to the front as guest conductor at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater. This season marks over a decade conducting the CSO’s annual Independence Day Pops Concert.

Tonight’s Pops program features favorites such as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and traditional patriotic marches “America the Beautiful” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Chafetz will also prominently feature the music of James Taylor and John Denver as performed by guest soloist Mike Eldred. Chafetz said he hopes the program serves as a balance of familiar and unfamiliar, patriotic and popular.

“I try and make Fourth of July a celebration of happiness,” he said. “There’s so much negative news that I want the audience to feel like they can dance and sing and have a good time. That’s this program.”

Chafetz said he accomplishes this with both his programming choices and his onstage demeanor. Known for his gregarious personality and boisterous stage presence, Chafetz said he and his orchestra try to unbutton and provide a “cooler experience.” According to him, classical music might take itself too seriously.

“In 2015, we have to lighten up a little bit and have fun,” he said. “I guess that’s been my philosophy.”

In practice, Chafetz said a holiday like July Fourth serves as the perfect venue to demonstrate how casual and enjoyable a symphony concert can be.

“Very often there’s this disconnect between the performers and the audience,” he said. “It’s sort of like you sit, behave, and you’re polite. I’ve always just enjoyed being able to share more than just the boring concert experience.”

True to Chafetz’s word, the CSO will inject a certain flair into its July Fourth celebration. Singing along is encouraged, and the iconic cannon shots from “1812 Overture” are replaced by paper lunch bags that the audience pops on cue.

“It puts a whole other meaning into pops concert,” Chafetz said.

But before the big bang, tenor Mike Eldred joins the CSO tonight to lead the program’s vocal repertoire. Growing up across Texas as the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, Eldred has made a name for himself as a Broadway performer in plays such as Les Misérables and Jesus Christ Superstar. This will be his first appearance at Chautauqua Institution.

Eldred is no stranger to the songs he will perform tonight. On a childhood road trip from new York to California, his family listened to the same eight-track tape of John Denver’s Greatest Hits on repeat.

“I will never forget driving into Denver the first time and listening to ‘Rocky Mountain High’ on that eight-track, and hearing [John Denver’s] voice and seeing the mountains for the first time in my life,” Eldred said. “It just implanted on me permanently and emotionally and musically.”

This experience ultimately encouraged him to be a singer, he said, and that impression continues to motivate him. Still, he also said that eight-track may have had another long term effect on his relationship with John Denver’s music.

“I prefer singing to listening to it,” Eldred said.