Matt Catingub is back (and forth) as he sets the stage for a slew of new musical performances through his latest venture.
There’s not much separating Matt Catingub from the Pacific. seated next to me in Halekulani’s bustling house without a Key restaurant, the founder and artistic director of Hawaii Pops is just a matter of yards from the warm water of Waikiki, surrounded by a soundtrack of clinking coffee cups, the metallic ring of tableware working over breakfast dishes, and an occasional throaty grumble from a not so distant jet airplane.
“God bless Hawaiian Airlines,” he tells me with a bright grin, leaning in closer to my digital recorder. “God bless Hawaiian Airlines.”
Living now in Las Vegas, Catingub flies regularly to the islands with the carrier, a major corporate sponsor of his recently launched Hawaii Pops non-profit, which debuted last fall as an independent entity.
After the Honolulu Symphony’s heavily publicized financial difficulties in 2009, Catingub, who had been the conductor of that organization’s pops division since 1998, struck out on his own, setting up Glendale Pops near Los Angeles and Macon Pops in Georgia before finalizing arrangements for a similar non-profit venture here in Hawai’i, one he hopes will be quite a departure from what he described as the “stuffiness” so often associated with orchestral performances.
“It’s really like a big night club with an orchestra on stage,” he says. “I’m not even calling them concerts. I’m calling them events because you’re coming out for an evening. You’re not just coming to a concert hall. You can eat. You can drink. You can dance. You can have a great time.”
Hawaii Pops kicked off its 2013-14 concert season last October in conjunction with the Hawaii International Film Festival, featuring an evening of music inspired by the James Bond movies and a special appearance by Sheena Easton. Catingub also launched a new performance series in the fall of 2013 he’s calling Hawaii Pops “Live at Lewers,” a far more intimate evening with big name musicians held at Halekulani’s elegant Lewers Lounge.
“I wanted to start a New York-style cabaret here on the island,” Catingub explains, noting that most of those small venues rarely seat more than 100 people.
“After concerts we’d always go to Lewers Lounge anyway, and we’d sit in and have a little impromptu party,” he says of some of the big-name guest musicians he’s played with in Honolulu over the years. “Ever since then the hotel and I have been trying to find a way to do this for real and actually turn it into a ticketed room.”
Robert Cazimero will perform selections from the Great American Songbook at the small venue Feb. 21 and 22 followed by a season finale with acclaimed jazz songstress Tierney Sutton April 18 and 19.
“She’s one of the top jazz singers in the world,” Catingub says. “So it will be a very unique show.”
Catingub knows a thing or two about jazz musicians. His mother, Mavis Rivers, was often referred to as “Samoa’s first lady of jazz,” and she was the first female artist Frank Sinatra signed to his Reprise record label in the 1960s. Catingub actually made his conducting debut at one of his mother’s shows on O’ahu.
“We get there and find out nobody’s there to conduct for her,” he tells me. “So she looked at me and said, ‘You’re my conductor,’ so I was 15 years old and they shoved me on that stage at the Waikiki Shell.”
The show turned out well, but Catingub doesn’t mind admitting he was a little scared.
“I had no business being up there,” he says with a laugh. “I knew my mom’s music very well, but I was just a cocky 15-year-old kid, [but] God bless mom for making me do that, because then when I was 16 or 17, and I was standing in front of jazz orchestras in Los Angeles trying to get my music played, I was a veteran.”
Also an accomplished saxophonist and vocalist, Catingub has conducted symphony orchestras across the nation and worked with musicians like Michael McDonald, Rosemary Clooney, Kenny Rogers, Natalie Cole and the Righteous Brothers.
Catingub’s close relationship with Rosemary Clooney also connected him to her nephew, George Clooney.
“I met George before George was George,” Catingcub remembers. “He moved over from Maysville, Kentucky, to be an actor, and his first job was to be Rosemary’s driver.”
Clooney asked Catingub to perform in and write the music for his 2005 film, Good Night and Good Luck, in which he portrayed a bandleader and played tenor saxophone. Th e film’s soundtrack later won a Grammy.
“Every piece of music was played on the set rather than in a studio and over dubbed later,” Catingub says of the filming process, explaining that Clooney had musicians performing live while actors executed scenes.
The film’s opening scene, an extended tracking shot set to music and lasting several minutes while traveling across a range of sets, is one that stands out for Catingub. Asked how many takes they needed to get the sequence right, he didn’t hesitate.
“Shockingly, for that opening scene, I only remember doing it twice.”