Last December, Glendale's Alex Theatre hosted its first holiday concert with the resident Glendale Pops Orchestra. Less than a year old, the band is still in the process of finding its place in the tight-knit community and reaching out to the larger Southern California audience. But leader Matt Catingub, a skilled music veteran with the ability to see past the score paper, is giving this enterprise a good chance of survival.
The show had a healthy attendance (fewer than 300 short of the Alex's 1,400 capacity) and drew a lot of familial groups and friends. Through his experience as itinerant conductor and pops arranger-bandleader, Catingub knows about building an audience. Almost as soon as he assumed this post, he formed the complementary Glendale Pops Youth Chorus. Put school kids onstage and their families are sure to attend.
Catingub conducted the band, served as affable frontman, sang and played piano solos. He also arranged and orchestrated all of the music for the evening. It was bright, swinging and had the requisite seasonal flavor ticket holders expected. Not many in the crowd knew it, but the orchestra -- with a sizable string component -- is made up of some of the best musicians in the Hollywood studios.
Catingub grew up in the Valley and graduated from Grant High School, so this is a bit of a full-circle experience. After 15 years with orchestras and symphonies from Hawaii to New Zealand to New Mexico to Glasgow to Florida, he's practically back where he started.
He comes by his music prowess honestly. Catingub's late mother, Mavis Rivers, was a well-known jazz singer, and his father was a musician. Still, genetics alone doesn't explain his early mastery of drums, piano, saxophones and vocals.
"Every once in a while," says veteran saxophonist Gary Foster, "we encounter a young musician who can do it all." Foster screened reed players for the Monterey Jazz Festival Youth Band when he first heard Catingub in 1978. "He was in high school," Foster recalls, "and he was already playing at a professional level; he just stood out from the others."
At 18 and 19, Catingub was leading his own band at long-gone clubs like Carmelo's, Donte's and Concerts by the Sea. From his home in Las Vegas, he laments: "It was a very special time, because those kinds of venues don't exist anymore. I was in the last high school and college generation that might work in a big band."
Though he joined drummer Louie Bellson's jazz orchestra, he also played in pop bands that drew on Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire as repertory.
In the early '80s, Catingub joined the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, of which Foster had been one of the mainstays. Akiyoshi's writing can be extremely difficult to execute, sometimes eliciting disbelief from seasoned pros. "The standards on that band were pretty high," Foster notes, "but Matt fit right into it."
For his Pops writing, Catingub is aware that his audience is not a strictly jazz crowd. "I learned from working with Rosie Clooney to honor the songwriter and keep it simple," he says. "Besides, all the great jazz musicians could do so much in just four bars."
Glendale Pops saxophonist Chris Driskill played in Toni Tennille's band when Catingub directed it. Driskill observes: "Matt's writing is very organic. It's never forced, always swings and doesn't do any more than what it's supposed to do. He's not trying to prove anything."
With featured guests, different skill sets and limitations, professional pride often surfaces. "Egos come into play in these situations," Driskill notes. "Matt is very accommodating; he has a very positive outlook, and that goes a long way."
Pianist David Benoit has guested with orchestras that Catingub has conducted. As chief custodian of Vince Guaraldi's "Charlie Brown Christmas" soundtrack, Benoit was a natural for the Alex's holiday show. "Matt is an absolutely brilliant arranger," he states. "He writes quickly and accurately; he's really good at knowing what each artist needs and crafting something unique for them."
Catingub is quite proud of the band. "I've played with orchestras all over the country and the world," he says. "Typically, you have a few really good musicians in those bands. Here, every chair is an exceptional player. They all work in the studios where you have to play it perfect the first time."
As he's building a musical institution, Catingub is bringing the Alex staff up to speed. "This is our first foray into a pops orchestra," says Elissa Glickman, director of marketing and resource development. "Matt's taught us all a great deal about what to look for in guest musicians and how to pull these kind of shows together. He's incredibly skilled in the different areas of production, but at the same time he's very affable."
The next Glendale Pops production is a Valentine's Day concert on Friday. Singer-guitarist Kenny Loggins headlines a program called "This Is Romance."
"This band has enormous potential," Catingub fairly crows. "I've been doing pops music for 15 years now, but being back in L.A. is like a shot of adrenaline.
"It's hard to communicate to a lay audience just how special this band is, even by L.A. standards. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra is the standard, but it's far more traditional; we're all about contemporary. The sky's the limit."
Glendale Pops Orchestra
What: "This Is Romance" with Kenny Loggins
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $36 to $80
Information: (818) 243-2539 or www.alextheatre.org