Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, March 19, 1998

The new
top of the pops

Honolulu Symphony selects a
conductor for its pops series

By Tim Ryan


Composer, arranger, musician and vocalist Matt Catingub says he's convinced someone's playing a cruel joke on him.

"My dream, my goal, has always been to be the pops conductor with the Honolulu Symphony, even when I knew they had never had one," Catingub said in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles-area home.

The Honolulu Symphony today gave Catingub an early birthday present -- he'll be 37 next week -- naming him to be the first principal pops conductor in the organization's history. Catingub takes the podium in September, the beginning of the symphony's 100th anniversary.

"There's no better place in the world to have a pops orchestra than Honolulu and no other place I would rather conduct," Catingub said. "For someone like me who's a composer-arranger, this is a dream come true. I get to write for a symphony orchestra and conduct my own music."

Sam Wong, the symphony's music director, described Catingub as "a versatile instrumentalist, a charismatic pops conductor and virtuoso arranger."

"His arrangements ... have been enjoyed by both local audiences as well as nationally when he arranged the music Keali'i Reichel performed at the Hollywood Bowl," Wong said. "The critical success of 'A Christmas with Friends and Nabors' is due in large part to Matt's brilliant orchestrations."

Catingub will select performers to appear with the symphony, as well as develop what he promised will be "unique ideas." Catingub will conduct five of the seven concerts.

The symphony soon will announce its pops schedule.

Catingub's professional debut was at age 15 when his mom, jazz singer Mavis Rivers, had him conduct her concert at the Waikiki Shell.

"She said I had to rehearse the orchestra and get them ready," Catingub remembers. "Imagine what all those established, professional musicians -- Gabe Baltazar was in the band -- must have thought watching a 15-year-old kid pretend he knew what he was doing. But it worked out great."

Catingub wasn't unprepared for such pressure.

"My mom started letting me play my clarinet with her on stage when I was 14," he said. "But I was always in the background."

Two years after his Shell debut, Catingub played alto sax at the Monterey Jazz Festival. That led to an invitation to join the Louie Bellson Big Band as its youngest member. The next year Bellson recorded Catingub's composition "Explosion" on the band's "Dynamite" album. By age 20, Catingub was playing lead alto sax with the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band.

Catingub then set his sights on conducting and arranging. In the early 1990s he teamed with pop stars Jack Jones and Toni Tennille, becoming their musical director, a title he still holds.

Catingub's real introduction to the Honolulu Symphony came in 1995 when Jimmy Borges brought Catingub here to conduct his "Sinatra" pops concert.

Borges believed Catingub's skill combined with his Polynesian heritage -- he is Filipino-Samoan -- could be a perfect marriage for Honolulu.

"I knew that once the musicians had an opportunity to work with Matt that they would embrace his talent, energy and passion for music," Borges said. "He represents the very best in ability and artistic innovation on the pop scene today."

Catingub promises that during his conductorship pops fans here will see a variety of new artists, few of whom are ordinarily seen in the pops arena. "We'll also showcase performers and programs that offer unique interpretations of the classics."

Do It Electric!

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