Church Choir Joins L.A. Pops Orchestra in Warner Center Concert

Almost every afternoon for the past 28 years, Shelly Cohen has commuted from his Calabasas home to NBC Studios in Burbank. There, the assistant music director for “The Tonight Show” Band coordinates musical selections, chart arrangements and tempos alongside Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsom. After a brief rehearsal, “The Tonight Show” Band is ready for its 5:15 p.m. taping.

Cohen’s rehearsals with St. Mel Catholic Church Choir in Woodland Hills aren’t so quick. The 100-member chorus, which consists mostly of amateur singers from 14 to 80 years old, requires about 10 weeks of intensive practice to get ready for a major performance. But the experience is rewarding, Cohen said.

“I do have to turn off a switch,” Cohen said of his 18 years of directing the St. Mel Choir in comparison with his “Tonight Show” activities. “I need to take more time with them, have more patience. But this is emotional music. It’s something with spiritually in it. When they sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ it’ll raise the hair on your back.”

Tonight and Saturday, Cohen leads the St. Mel Choir, and is the guest conductor for the Los Angeles Pops Orchestra’s final “Show Stoppers Summer ’90" concert series at the Trillium Event Center in Woodland Hills. Both shows begin at 8 p.m.


The theme is “Broadway Treasures--Curtain UP!” and includes the music of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, selections from “Phantom of the Opera” and a tribute to George M. Cohan.

Originally a classically trained violinist, Cohen also mastered the saxophone and clarinet and earned his living as a studio musician on “The Tonight Show.” Conducting was something “I just slowly fell into,” he said.

“Over the years, I watched and I learned. It’s not just standing up there. It’s working together as a family, changes in tempo by a look or a subtle arm movement.”

“He’s transformed our choir,” St. Mel pastor emeritus Msgr. Michael O’Connor said of Cohen. He added that the “Tonight Show” conductor has also used the church choir in two NBC Christmas specials, both of which Cohen produced.


Now in its 13th season, the Los Angeles Pops Orchestra has made the West Valley location its official summer home since 1986, said Victor Wong, general manager. Cohen has been a guest conductor for the orchestra once before, in 1985, Wong said.

“I’ve seen what he’s done with the group, too,” said Wong, referring to the St. Mel Choir’s annual holiday extravaganza and television appearances. “He’s an exceptional conductor.”

“Show Stoppers Summer ’90" Los Angeles Pops Orchestra and the St. Mel Catholic Church Choir, with guest conductor Shelly Cohen, tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Trillium Event Center, 6320 Canoga Ave., Woodland Hills. Stadium seating $15 to $20, table seating $35 to $50. Call (800) 233-7677.