‘The most fabulous musical party’ brings Motown to Reno

The Reno Phil’s annual Pops on the River is moving to Reno’s new – and somewhat controversial – casino venue.
A photograph of a night concert in Reno

Previous Pops on the River events were held at Wingfield Park in Reno, which has gotten packed with concert goers in recent years. Photo courtesy Artown

The annual Pops on the River is a community party that brings all sorts of people together. That’s how the Reno Phil’s music director Laura Jackson describes it. The event, which doubles as a music festival and fundraiser, will include two new venues this year, including the new J Resort in downtown Reno.

“We’re really happy to partner with the J Resort to celebrate them, the fact that this new resort is open, that they have this new venue. So, we’re helping to sort of bring the community to them, but also it helps us, because I think it might help us as we move forward, accommodate more people,” Jackson said.

This year’s event coincides with the Reno Phil’s 55th season. So, we recently sat down with music director Laura Jackson to reflect on our music community and the next 55 years.

Listen to this interview.

Sierra Nevada Ally: I’m going to ask maybe a silly question to someone with your musical background. But what is a ‘Pops’ exactly? I don’t really know anything about classical music. So when I hear, ‘It’s the Reno Pops,’ like that sounds different in some ways. So, what is that or how is this different than I guess your traditional sort of classical show?

Laura Jackson: Well, the classical show will be typically in an indoor venue. So, we do ours at the Pioneer center. And we will do staples of classic literature, like Beethoven symphonies, Mozart symphonies, you know, Shostakovich symphonies, things like that, as well as concertos, longer, more extended pieces.

In a Pops show, you’re looking at all different genres of music that are being adapted for an orchestra. So, for instance, in this program that we’re doing, we will be doing the music of Motown, it’s a program called dancing in the streets. We have three fabulous artists joining us from New York, and it’s just an amazing, amazing show.

Posters for this year’s Pops on the River event at the Glow Plaza in downtown Reno.

So basically, if you talk about a Pops concert, Motown did not originally have an orchestra behind the band, right? So, this will be a hybrid situation, we will have a band, and we will have that augmented by the fabulous, warm strings of the Reno Phil, and the brass and woodwinds. So, it just makes it even better.

I’m fascinated by the creative process and how some of this works. What’s the process like for taking a Motown song and adding the symphony behind it, or the or the orchestra behind it? What’s that process like? I just have no idea how that works.

These arrangements are created by specialists who do that, so I don’t create the arrangements. But I think my job as the interpreter is to study the original and honor the original, and then think about how we can make the Reno Phil augment that, so I’m honoring the tradition from which it comes. But I’m also honoring who we are and the community that we’re in front of.

On that note, tell me a little bit more about your experience or research into Motown. What have you learned through this as you’re preparing for this year’s event?

Well, I live about 40 minutes away from Detroit. So, I live in a culture that just, you know, exudes the fabulous history and vibe of Motown. The Reno Phil has had The Contours come, we’ve done a concert with Martha Reeves before. It’s something that I grew up with, these songs. I love these songs. They’re really just in my bones in a certain way. I will be having the time of my life doing this concert.

What I love is that we have great hits from many different Motown groups. So, it’s not just one thing. There’s something for everybody on this concert.

This year’s Pops event is also the same year that the Reno Phil is celebrating 55 years. What have been some of your favorite memories of being a part of the Phil? Are there any sort of memories that stick out in your mind as you think back?

I will never forget the first Pops on the River that I ever attended. I was not conducting because I had just been appointed music director and I thought to myself, ‘This is the most fabulous musical party I have ever encountered in my entire career and life.’

I can remember doing fabulous things on the symphonic stage. We just did Carmen, we just did an opera. I’ll never forget that. We did the music of Mahler (Symphony No. 2), with the chorus several years ago, that was a just an epic moment that I’ll never forget. But it’s also moments where we really feature our fabulous musicians in in wonderful ways, and put a spotlight on them and just focus on the talent that we have right here in this community. And we have lots of opportunities for that in the Classix season coming up.

But the other concert that we’re doing, even before the Motown concert, is the Patriotic Pops concert. What’s wonderful about this is we pay homage to Independence Day, to a day that is fundamental to the creation of this nation. And at that same time, we get to look at a broad swath of American culture and history and all of the rich tapestry of music that comes from America. And to be drawing from movie music and the music of jazz and popular genres, we’re doing something by Taylor Swift. We’re doing all kinds of things.

It’s a great showcase for the talent that we have right here and it’s a great way to celebrate who we are as a culture and a larger national community.

I’m glad you brought up community because I wanted to ask about [that]. This year’s event is the first time that it’ll be at the new J resort, and so I’m just curious, do you have any sense of what the decision was like? Or what you’re looking forward to, having this [event] at this venue this year?

To clarify, we’re doing two new venues for the Reno Phil in these particular concerts. So the Motown concert that we’re doing the Pops on the River concert, that’s the one that’s at the J Resort. And it will be the first time that we’re there, and I’m so excited about this. This event is so jam packed. Usually when we’ve been doing it at Wingfield Park, we can just barely contain all the enthusiastic people that come. It’s a concert that we really see the possibility of growing.

And we think that this new venue will give us a whole new possibility. We’re really happy to partner with the J Resort to celebrate them, the fact that this new resort is open, that they have this new venue. So, we’re helping to sort of bring the community to them, but also it helps us, because I think it might help us as we move forward, accommodate more people.

The other venue that I want to mention since I’ve talked about the Patriotic Pops, that’s going to be July 3, and it’s at the Aces ballpark, Greater Nevada Field. We have done a James Bond concert there before, so this is our second concert there, but it’s the first time we’re doing our patriotic concert there. So that’s also the beginning of a new era for us in a way, just as the J Resort concert is, and I love that.

Looking ahead to the Pops, what are you looking forward to over the next several years?

What I’m looking forward to is continuing to listen to this wonderful community. They have so many great ideas about what they would love to see the Reno Phil do, groups that they would love to see us collaborate with, the types of music they would love to see us perform. So, we always have an ear to the ground. We are talking to people and changing what we do to serve the community that we serve.

We are doing [a] Back to the Future movie concert. So, this is one of these ways in which we have listened to people and we are responding. We’ve been hearing for years, ‘Would you please do music to a movie so we can watch the whole movie and hear a live orchestra with them?’ So, we did Ghostbusters for the first time last year and it was a huge hit at the Grand Sierra Resort.

We have other concerts coming up this summer. We have a Rodgers and Hammerstein concert coming up that’s going to be up at Lake Tahoe. We have stuff all over the place, and as you can see from the fact that we do patriotic music, we do movie music, we do our holiday concert in December, and we do traditional favorites like Rodgers and Hammerstein, we do a whole bunch of different things. And the Reno Phil is different things to different people, and we love that and we want to be that.

Laura Jackson is the music director for the Reno Phil. This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.

The Sierra Nevada Ally is now available as a podcast! You can listen to the latest audio news reports from our team on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, or by searching “Sierra Nevada Ally” wherever you listen.


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