Pops! woos the fans

The North Charleston Pops! orchestra is regularly drawing an audience of 1,000 people or more.

It’s catching on fast.

Now at the cusp of its fifth season, the North Charleston Pops! is luring thousands of patrons to the Performing Arts Center for concerts featuring Broadway and movie music, big band tunes, famous singers such as Mary Wilson and a relaxed atmosphere.

The pops orchestra comprises professional players led by conductor Nick Palmer, who is about to start his second season as music director.

“I wasn’t expecting it to become so important to the community so quickly,” said Executive Director Tacy Edwards, who devotes many hours to the ensemble on a volunteer basis. “Nick is the perfect match for what Pops wants to do”: provide great entertainment and harness the spirit of a growing city.

They manage to do a lot with a small but growing annual budget. This year it’s $180,000, with a big chunk of it coming from Boeing, the orchestra’s main sponsor. The city helps, too, providing venues, marketing and money. This enables the Pops to keep ticket prices low, Edwards said.

The partnership with the city began at an opportune moment, just as the region began to see substantial growth in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. The Pops ensemble satisfies a need, Edwards said. “There’s lots of pride that the community has its own orchestra.”

The expanded new season kicks off Sept. 10 with “Broadway Rocks!” The concert includes tunes from popular shows such as “Wicked,” “Hairspray,” “The Lion King,” “Rent,” “The Wiz” and “Mamma Mia!” Four more concerts follow.

Plans also are being laid to present a few outdoor concerts in Riverfront Park, Palmer and Edwards said. They also want to take the Pops orchestra on the road for performances in the Southeast.

Edwards remembers her joy at seeing more than 700 patrons in the audience for the first-ever Pops concert in November 2012. Nowadays, concerts easily draw at least 1,000. The final concert of last season filled the PAC with 1,220 people. Once, in February 2014, a concert featuring Cirque de la Symphonie sold out with more than 2,000 in attendence.

“We are finding, as each concert happens, we sell more tickets,” she said. “Word-of-mouth advertising is very powerful.”

Palmer, who has enjoyed a long career as a composer, arranger and conductor, said he’s especially excited about the opportunities opening up for the North Charleston Pops! orchestra. It’s about a lot more than presenting concerts.

The group operates a successful instrument donation program, providing low-income children a chance to learn and perform music. And now Palmer and his colleagues are working on setting up a Pops chorus and string orchestra. Eventually, he hopes to develop a full-scale Youth Pops Orchestra, he said.

Edwards, a flutist with years of performing and administrative experience, said the orchestra is fortunate to have found Palmer.

“I have worked with many music directors,” she said. “It’s hard to find a person so well-rounded. ... Nick, he loves people, goes into the community, he’s responsive, outgoing, easy to work with, very supportive of what we do.”

And he is full of ideas and has a clear vision for the organization. “He knows a lot of artists out in the world, so he’s able to bring us talent at a fraction of the typical cost.”

Palmer, 59, lives on a 40-acre farm called Harmony Fields in Daviess County, Ky. His wife, Dorothy, is a certified life coach and Equus coach. His dog, a Corgi named Hercules the Mighty Hunter, is trained to sniff out truffles.

Truffle farming occupies much of the Palmers’ time, but they also keep horses, donkeys, alpacas, dogs and cats, heirloom chickens (“we have phenomenal eggs every morning,” Nick Palmer said) and a pig.

Thirty-four years married, they have four adult sons, three of whom are artists (the oldest sells benchmark futures).

The couple are looking to buy a house in the Charleston area and divide their time between the Lowcounty and Harmony Fields.

At 14, Nick Palmer knew he wanted to be a conductor, and by 16 he was on the podium. He grew up in the Boston area and his parents took him to symphony concerts regularly and to Tanglewood every summer. As a teenager, he attended the New England Conservatory, studied with Frank Battisti and led a wind ensemble there.

He also had established a 10-piece band that played popular music he arranged, listening to recordings, writing out the parts and leading rehearsals. That led Palmer to compose original music.

He attended Harvard, leading student-run ensembles and opera productions. Then he enrolled in Juilliard’s master’s program and became assistant conductor of the American Opera Center. Back in Boston, at the New England Conservatory where he finished his master’s, he founded a professional orchestra. He was 24.

Soon he landed his first full-time job with the Jacksonville Orchestra, conducting lots of pops concerts.

“Over the last several years, I’ve had opportunities to do a lot of pops conducting all over the world: Europe, South America, Mexico,” he said. “It’s a direction I wanted to go in in my career at this point. When the opportunity came up to take on North Charleston Pops!, I was thrilled.”

Palmer said the orchestra benefits from a vibrant music scene in the Charleston area, drawing both local and regional musicians who play professionally in other ensembles. Members of the North Charleston Pops! orchestra also perform in the pit at the Performing Arts Center when touring Broadway productions come to town.

This vibrant scene, which includes a Pops series produced by the Charleston Symphony, makes for healthy competition in an “arts-minded community,” Palmer said. And none of it would be possible without strong support from the city, he added.

Kyle Lahm, director of the North Charleston Cultural Arts Department, said the Pops orchestra has quickly become a leading arts organization in the area whose value to the community is multifaceted.

“The North Charleston Pops! orchestra does a wonderful job of providing accessible entertainment to the citizens of North Charleston,” Lahm said. “We also enjoyed showcasing the Pops Kidz Chorus in our Christmas parade last year. What a great way for youth to engage in music.”

Principal cellist Elizabeth Murphy has been part of the pops orchestra since it started. She just relocated to Charleston. Until now, she had been commuting from Atlanta, where she played with the opera, symphony and ballet. For years, she also has played in the Hilton Head and Charleston symphony orchestras.

Murphy credits much of the success of the North Charleston Pops! to Edwards.

“She’s an unbelievable dynamo,” Murphy said of her friend. “She knows people who can get things done in a short time. What’s she’s been able to get done is just remarkable.”

And Palmer has raised the bar, Murphy said.

“He uses the time wisely, he’s so engaging, so respectful, so much fun to work with. People in the audience just love it. It’s a joyous thing. I have had so much experience with orchestras over the years, this is an anomaly,” she said, adding that it’s rare that an ensemble of this kind develops such a robust following so quickly.

Looking ahead, Palmer wants to expand education outreach initiatives, perform more often in more places and collaborate with other arts organizations such as Lowcountry Voices and local ballet companies, he said. He has plans to include the new string ensemble and Kidz Chorus in upcoming Pops concerts.

“Down the line we want to have several ensembles that are for children, and ultimately a junior pops orchestra,” he said.

Already, a Pops concert is no straightforward performance; the group organizes activities before and after concerts, and during intermission. Concertmaster Gerome Stewart tosses T-shirts to audience members.

In a way, it’s about good branding and establishing a significant niche for the orchestra and its various projects, Palmer said.

But don’t assume the fun and games somehow overshadow the musical performances.

“I approach this music as if it were Mahler or Beethoven or anything else,” he said. “I take it very seriously. We work hard. Our goal is to present this music artistically to the greatest degree possible while still making an experience that’s enjoyable for our audience.”

Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.