Matt Catingub, in his dressing room, preps for rehearsal.

Laid-back ‘Cat’ makes his
symphony gig look easy

Symphony Pops

With guest star Michael McDonald

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow

Tickets: $15 to $57

Call: 792-2000

Twenty minutes before conducting the Honolulu Symphony's Pops orchestra, Matt Catingub is prone on a couch -- the only furniture in his Blaisdell Concert Hall dressing room -- dozing, checking his fingernails and tapping his right foot to some melody dancing in his head.

It's April, and he arrives at the venue from his Ewa Beach home in a Toyota SUV -- a perk provided by symphony sponsor Servco -- to rehearse with the evening's guests: Hapa, Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Jordan Segundo.

A single black aloha shirt hangs in the dressing room closet. The "makeup" table bears a hairbrush, breath mints and a bottle of Jack Daniels for post-concert celebrating.

Catingub, 42, glances at the gold watch on his left wrist, wipes some dirt off the black slacks and shoes he's been wearing all day, stretches again, closes his eyes, leans his head back and yawns audibly.

"That's my game face," the Los Angeles-born and raised Catingub jokes. "Eyes closed, yawning, cleaning my nails. But my big preparation is changing shirts."

Catingub's easygoing style is a ruse.

Symphony pops conductor rehearses with Barry Flanagan of Hapa.

It can take "Da Cat" -- as some musicians call him -- four weeks to prepare for a concert. That's working eight to 12 hours a day, time mostly spent writing the music charts for guest artists such as Kenny Loggins, Toni Tenille, Dave Koz, Michael Feinstein and the late Rosemary Clooney.

"I'm also always trying to find an artist who doesn't have arrangements, which makes our offer so sweet to them," he said. "The arrangements normally could cost as much as $20,000. We do it for free."

The April concert was easier because all the artists but Segundo had performed with the orchestra before.

"This is one of those concerts that I get to just enjoy," said Catingub, who is still resting when Gilliom, elegant in a bare-shoulder black gown and heels -- her hair still in rollers -- bursts into the room to give the conductor a kiss and lei.

"You look beautiful," he said. "Anything we can do?"

"Make me sound good like you always do," Gilliom answers back before leaving with the door left open.

"Show time," Catingub says before taking a breath mint, cleaning his glasses and making the 10-second switch to his "formal" aloha shirt and stepping outside without his customary baton.

"I use whatever they hand me," he said. "I used to just use my hands, but they tell me a conductor has to have a baton."

Catingub then adjusts his trademark ponytail.

"Is it centered?" he asks. "I don't want it pointing to the side."

The ponytail was Catingub's act of rebellion after the divorce of his first wife.

"I was very conservative," said Catingub, who is part Samoan and Filipino. "I decided hell with that. It's not that unusual for a Polynesian guy to have a ponytail, so I let it go."

CATINGUB WILL BE repeating his routine as the symphony closes its 2002-03 season with guest artist Michael McDonald today and tomorrow. He has been the Pops job principal conductor since 1998, when former director Michael Tiknis hired him. Catingub and his wife of six years, Vicki, live in a new five-bedroom home with four dogs and two cats.

It's just after 7 a.m. when Matt meets Vicki in the sunny kitchen. She's drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. The couple kiss, then discuss the day's plans: straightening up the home, hanging pictures and shelves. Two of Vickie's teenage children from a previous marriage are arriving the next day from California.

Before chores begin, the family pets enter and Catingub does the formal introductions. The Shitzus are Charlie, Hannah and Carnie, short for Carnegie Hall, and Chloe, a Chihuahua.

"We named her after Carnegie Hall because the year she was born, I sang in Carnegie Hall," he explains.

Before moving here from L.A., the couple had three cats -- Frank, Dean and Sammy -- their "cat pack," but only Frank made the trip here. When the feline got lonely, the couple adopted a kitten from the Hawaiian Humane Society. They named her Nancy, after Frank Sinatra's first wife.

"So now we have Frank and Nancy," Catingub says. "Life is good."

IT'S 1:30 in the afternoon when Catingub arrives at the concert hall, parking alongside a well-used barbecue where he sometimes helps cook meat during lengthy rehearsals or before performances.

"Hello, Mr. Matt," a hefty security guard says. "Gonna be a good one tonight?"

"Darn right, and I better hear you clapping even from back here," Catingub says, flashing a shaka sign.

After a sip of water, Catingub joins the 65 members of the orchestra on stage where there's a cacophony of sounds from instruments being tuned.

"A-l-o-h-a," Catingub says in tour guide fashion. "Are we ready to have a f-u-n?"

Hapa's Barry Flanagan is already here. The two men discuss the latest revision of the music. Catingub steps onto the podium using his hands as batons.

In two hours there are only minor changes in the music, suggestions about tempo and lots of joking between songs.

"It's so easy to overrehearse something," Catingub says during a break. "This music really plays itself. All you have to do with musicians this good is put the music in front of them, and they look at it and read it down, usually just once."

When there's a miscue, Catingub looks up and smiles and the musician nods. Problem solved.

"I don't ever have go back and say something like, 'Now we need to ...' or 'Let's check this bar,'" he says.

Something remarkable happens during rehearsal. Catingub wants to add a measure for the trumpets and trombones, mentioning the idea to trombonist Jim Decker, who says, "It's already done."

"Oh, so now you're changing the music without asking permission," Catingub says, feigning tears. "I am useless, I tell you!"

Catingub laughs loudest, then yells "Class dismissed," and the musicians head home. Catingub and orchestra manager Jim Mancuso head across the street to TGI Friday's for "a pre-game meal." The two men are longtime friends, having worked together on the mainland.

Several "Aloha, Matts" greet the conductor in the noisy restaurant 90 minutes before show time. The two consider ordering vegetable appetizers but decide on some deep-fried delicacies and beer.

The next hour is spent talking about everything but the upcoming performance. Catingub talks about the landscapers who'll be installing plants the next day and the DVDs he and Vicki watched the night before: "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under." They also watched "Animal Planet."

Then Mancuso announces, "It's about that time."

At the Concert Hall, Catingub sits at the piano rechecking the music. He pencils in some notes while chatting with the drummer.

"When I first conducted a symphony, I had to pretend I had done it before," he said. "It was for Jack Jones, who asked me straight out if I had done a symphony.

"I said no. He said, 'Well, you're going to in about 30 minutes.' I pretended I knew what I was doing. And that's the way it's been my whole life."

Twenty minutes before curtain, Catingub heads off stage for a quick chat with the artists.

"Turn around, you," he says to Kristin Jackson, the symphony's artist coordinator, who's carrying a cake for the post-concert gathering. "You just keep baking there, Betty Crocker."

"No cake for you," Jackson yells, mimicking the "Seinfeld" Soup Nazi character.

It's Segundo's first major concert, and the talented young Honolulu singer is nervous: His eyes are wide, and his brow is wet with perspiration.

"This is the song I think we should end with tonight," Catingub suggests.

Segundo stammers. In his most authoritative move of the day, Catingub quickly solves the dilemma.

"Tell you what, if it doesn't work tonight, then we'll change it for tomorrow night," says the conductor, who hurries to his dressing room to change shirts.

The concert finishes without a musical glitch, and there are congratulations all around backstage. The artists and most of the musicians leave, and Catingub, Jackson, Mancuso and several others gather around a rectangular table to share some Jack Daniels, wine, juices, diet sodas and Jackson's cake.

Catingub is the brunt of as many jokes as the people he chides. "This is almost my favorite part of being this Pops conductor, the banter," he says.

Some early departees tug slightly Catingub's ponytail, uttering, "Bye, boss."

"I hate that word," he says. "Call me 'theee m-a-e-s-t-r-o!'"

"Now there's word I hate," someone says, and everyone laughs.

Mancuso hides the refreshments and begins shutting off lights.

Catingub walks out alone, passing the same guard he spoke to hours earlier.

"How'd I do, boss?" Catingub asks.

The guard nods approvingly. "I tink you pass audition, maestro," he says. "Try come back tomorrow."

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