Each fall and spring for nearly a quarter century, László Veres has led the Tucson Pops Orchestra in rousing renditions of iconic marches, Broadway tunes and American classics.
Fans of the Pops’ Music Under the Stars series at Reid Park come to see him as much as the orchestra.
“He makes the evening so much fun, especially with the stories he would tell and the background of the music. It was just a fun evening,” said Pops fan Frances Bettinger, who was so enamored with the professional ensemble comprised of moonlighting Tucson Symphony Orchestra players that she served as the orchestra’s executive director.
But at 81, Veres is starting to wind down his career. This weekend he will audition the first of several guest conductors vying to replace him. The process could take as long as two years, said Veres and Bettinger, who is leading the search committee.
“It’s daunting. He’s been doing it for so long,” Bettinger said, ticking off the names of several conductors including Toru Tagawa, founder and conductor of the Tucson Repertory Orchestra, who have expressed interest in the job. “Those are some big shoes to fill. It is very hard to replace someone like him.”
First up on the roster of potential replacements: Linus Lerner, the longtime conductor/music director of the volunteer Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra.
Lerner, who also conducts an orchestra in his native Brazil, will take the baton for the first half of the fall concert series opener on Sunday, Sept. 9. His program includes works by Mexican, American and Brazilian composers.
“I’m really looking forward to working with this wonderful group of musicians,” said Lerner, who spends his summers guest conducting orchestras and operas around the globe. “I think it’s a great thing for Tucson to have a pops orchestra.”
Other Tucson conductors expected to audition include Gregory Helseth, who will lead the Pops on Sept. 16.
Veres, who said the Pops job pays “something called peanuts,” began his Pops career in 1993 as the assistant to longtime conductor Bucky Steele. When Steele retired in 1997, Veres, a retired school teacher who spent a dozen years as principal clarinet for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, took over.
He also leads the volunteer Arizona Symphonic Winds, which he formed in 1986. The group performs a fall and spring Music In the Park series at Udall Park’s László Veres Amphitheater, 7290 E. Tanque Verde Road. Performances are at 7 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 29.
Veres admitted the Pops audition process is long.
“My wife thinks I can go to 85, no problem,” said Veres. “As long as I stay healthy and sharp and I have the energy and love what I’m doing, I’m fine.”
“It’s a very slow process. I don’t think László is going anywhere anytime soon,” said Bettinger, who anticipates a couple more conductors will be added to the audition list through the process. “To be honest, as long as he wants to be up on the stage, we want him up there. He’s incredible. But it’s not to say that we are not going to find somebody who is equally as good, I am hoping.”