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From Motown to the Philly Sound, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra brings the groove to PNC Pops

Byron Stripling, principal conductor, PNC pops, Orchestra, music
Byron Stripling conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

This weekend, Pittsburgh audiences will hear beloved songs from Motown and the Philly Sound with the full weight of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra behind them. The music and voices for "Let's Groove Tonight: Motown and the Philly Sound" will be guided by the expert baton of Byron Stripling, who was recently named principal POPS conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

A man of many talents, Stripling is also a trumpet virtuoso, a singer and actor, and the artistic director and conductor of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. The maestro spoke to WESA's Priyanka Tewari on Morning Edition.

Priyanka Tewari: What drew you to a career in music in the first place?

Byron Stripling: Music was always a central part of everything in the family I grew up in. I was raised by two beautiful parents. My father was a singer, classical singer. So I love classical music because of that. But when dad got home later after working, he would always put on jazz. He put on Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington and Count Basie and so many other great jazz musicians. And then after having maybe a little sip of wine, he'd go on to Motown, and all the pop music that was popular at the time. And my brother was a clarinet player, my mother played the flute. It's family. It's who I am.

You made your debut at Carnegie Hall with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops, and have soloed with over 100 orchestras around the world. What made you say yes to being the principal Pops conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

Honestly, I used to always complain when I was playing in bands and orchestras, and I spent a great part of my life traveling all over the world playing concerts. I was in other people's bands, and I would sometimes go, "Wow, that tempo is too fast, I don't know why the conductor did it like that. Oh, that's too slow. Oh, it should be this. It should be that." My friends started saying, look, you come to rehearsal and you complain a lot, why don't you just become a conductor? And they were telling me, you got to stop complaining and go with the program or create something of your own. And that was a great lesson for me.

Byron Stripling, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Conductor, POPS
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Byron Stripling

Because you're an accomplished actor and singer as well, does that in any way inform your approach to conducting? Do you treat it like a performance?

Stripling: Yeah. I mean, I treat it like a performance, I also treat it like a show. I treat it like a therapy session. That's what the power of music is, right? It's a chance to have the music enter into your heart. It's that that part of the music that can grab a hold of your ears, and take you on a journey, and change you, so you won't leave the concert hall like you came. Hopefully you will be uplifted by the music that happens in the concert hall. That's a goal of every concert for me.

How are Pittsburgh audiences different from the audiences that you have conducted before, in other places?

Stripling: Well, because the Pittsburgh Symphony is a world renowned orchestra, there's a base of people here who are crazy fans, as they should be. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is great but not many people know that when they go overseas, people literally go crazy screaming, stomping, giving them standing ovations multiple times. And there are people in Pittsburgh that know that. So a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony is really almost like a sporting event in a way because of the the fans and the people that love it.

What goes into the process of choosing what you are going to conduct next, or what the Pops are going to work on next? Why Motown and the Philly Sound as the final season concert?

Stripling: Well, Motown was an important company for the music world and it gave us so many great hits that now have become a part of our lives. So when you hear the bass go, boom, boom, boom, boom. Pretty soon somebody is going to go, "I got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside", right? All you are triggered by is that little bass line. That's the beauty of Motown. That's the beauty of music. This is music that has a heritage that's based in Black culture, where people, rather than succumb to all the bitterness of what happened in their life, they create art. They sing themselves out of depression; Out of all the things that have happened to them. They compose music. They dance. This is what Black culture is about. So we get a chance to give a slight picture of that with the sound from Philadelphia. There's a great company called Philadelphia International, they have great bands we will play music from that, but also the great music of Motown. So that's a long version of why we're doing it. And there are some other surprises in there too. But I can't tell you what they are because it would ruin the concert for you.

More information on "Lets Groove Tonight: Motown and the Philly Sound" is available at:

The audio was produced by WESA's Susan Scott Peterson.

Priyanka Tewari is a native of New Delhi, India. She moved to the United States with her family in the late 1990s, after living in Russia and the United Kingdom. She is a graduate of Cornell University with a master’s from Hunter College, CUNY.