15 years as pops principal conductor is an “unforgettable gift” to Sonoma County

As Michael Berkowitz fires up for his final season on the LBC stage as Principal Pops Conductor for the Santa Rosa Symphony, his fans anticipate a full-hearted celebration that many also consider bittersweet – because, sadly, it means having to say goodbye. Make no mistake: They will still be on the edge of the best seats they could get, reserved as early as last spring, ready to capture and hold onto that sparkle that Michael’s witty banter and self-assured conducting has brought to every performance for the past 15 years.

“We anticipate this season with inspiration, gratitude, and nostalgia, as each concert presents us with an unforgettable gift from Maestro Berkowitz’s 15 years as Symphony Pops Principal Conductor,” said Alan Silow, President and CEO of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “He has presided over some of the most dynamic entertainment experiences for orchestra novices and aficionados alike, helping make the Santa Rosa Symphony’s partnership with Luther Burbank Center for the Arts a vital element to the Sonoma County arts and culture scene.”

The journey to LBC

From his home on the Hudson River in a small hamlet 60 miles north of Manhattan, Michael recounted his journey from a performance at the Curran Theater in San Francisco 47 years ago to the LBC stage. “The day after that performance, I took a drive to Santa Rosa and discovered the thrill and beauty of the Russian River. I just couldn’t keep away, and eventually, the Santa Rosa Symphony and I found each other,” he said.

By now, the North Bay region knows Michael Berkowitz as one of the modern era’s great champions of The American Songbook of standards – the music of Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Sammy Cahn, made popular by performers like Frank Sinatra. Some of them might remember back in the mid-2000s, when he guest conducted for the Santa Rosa Symphony with Steve Lippia, one of the country’s best-known performers of those standards and whose vocals are considered a dead ringer for Frank Sinatra’s. The combination appealed resoundingly to the Santa Rosa audience, and Michael was invited to take up the baton as principal conductor in 2007.

Michael remembers his first concert with the Santa Rosa Symphony Pops was a Henry Mancini tribute. In his final concert, he will return to the music he loves best with some of his favorite Broadway pieces and a turn at the drums, the instrument that got his music career started, when he played for such Hollywood legends as composer Mancini, singer Liza Minnelli, and arranger Nelson Riddle. In between those bookending milestones, the music has ranged from the Big Band era of the 1930s and 40’s, movie soundtracks from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Beatles and ABBA Shows, and current-day tributes.

With an acclaimed conducting technique and a comfortable, humorous manner at the Podium, the Maestro has consistently delivered to LBC fans some of the most entertaining and original Pops programs, from Broadway to Hollywood, Garland to Sinatra, Motown to John Denver and the Beatles – and most with the original arrangements. His finale will pay tribute to the best of the best.

A season on the scale of a grand finale

Now in its 17th year, the Sunday afternoon Pops concert series will kick-off with Playing for Peanuts: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, featuring David Benoit, on October 9. It will ring in the holiday season on December 11 with A John Denver Rocky Mountain Christmas, with special new arrangements for some of Denver’s beloved songs. On February 5, 2023, “Stayin’ Alive” – The Bee Gees Tribute promises to capture the close harmonies of brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice. The season comes to a jubilant close on April 23, 2023, with My Kind of Broadway, Maestro Berkowitz’s selection of some of his favorite Broadway hits as sung by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, and more. According to Michael, “Expect songs like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Lady Is A Tramp,” “Something’s Coming,” “Come Back to Me,” “Big Spender,” and “So in Love,” plus exciting instrumentals, such as Nelson Riddle’s swinging version of “Oklahoma” and, as a finale, Michael behind the drums for Buddy Rich’s acclaimed rendering of “West Side Story.”

Prior to each performance, LBC will host a discussion in which Michael provides insight into the afternoon’s program and shares personal anecdotes and memories from his storied career. Season ticket packages, which include all four concerts and pre-concert talks, and single tickets are available online at, by phone at 707-546-3600, or at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts Box Office, 50 Mark West Springs Road in Santa Rosa.

Michael after Pops

Michael doesn’t want to call his departure a retirement so much as an easing off. “I’m just doing things I like to do. Travel and enjoying life is top of the list. I’ll do concerts if there’s interest, and I’m always putting together new programs. I’m in New Jersey in October doing a Tribute to Stephen Sondheim. October I’ll be in Portland, conducting a Gala Celebration with the Orchestra of Judy Garland’s 100 Birthday, plus a new program for smaller venues of Frank Sinatra in Paris, where Sinatra performed with a small group of only six musicians. Next March I’ll be back in Toulon, France, for two weeks. Truthfully? I wouldn’t even hesitate to do a Queen or a Steely Dan concert if the chance came up,” he said.

Favorite memory at LBC? “I do remember a show called Maestro’s Favorites that a lot of people said was our best show. Think Sammy, Ella, Frank. It was music I hadn’t performed in Santa Rosa before, and I did some of the drumming. I had a ball doing that concert. In fact, the upcoming 2022-23 season should be a swinging reminder of it, especially for long-time members who might have attended it.”

According to Alan Silow, following Michael’s departure, the Symphony Pops Series will continue as enthusiastically as ever. “The Santa Rose Symphony plans to work with guest conductors, as is standard practice for an orchestra, before selecting just the right new principal conductor for Santa Rosa.” He didn’t hesitate to add that the Symphony skipped that practice after Michael conducted his first concert here. “He was a godsend; we offered him the position directly, and we are so much the better for having him these 15 years. We wish him well.”

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