Even before his first elegant keyboard gesture, Peter Nero got a standing ovation.
"Can we try that again, please?" asked Nero ironically, drawing a big laugh from his admirers.
But seriously, no — it won't happen again. Sunday's concert was his last as music director in Verizon Hall. The sign above the stage said it all: I the lights that spelled out "Peter Nero and the Philly Pops," the bulbs making up "and the" were burnt out, like unintentional supertitles signaling the now-severed relationship between the maestro and the group he led since 1979.
Nero didn't want to go. "I haven't been looking forward to this," he told the audience. But the Pops has new leadership, and, like the lounge act tossed when a jazz joint gets new owners, Nero is out.
The audience didn't want him to go. A few held up banners thanking him. They begged for an encore; in coded mocking of the new management, he uttered words he says he has heard often in recent years: "It's not in the budget." The audience, warmed if not mollified by his explanation and mentions of future concerts in Cape May, Trenton and at Independence Hall, went on its way.
If the tone wasn't exactly celebratory, it was at times genuinely elegiac. Nero repeatedly paid tribute to his players — the Pops orchestra, a substantially stable group of freelancers — and made an endorsement of his successor that seemed halfway between perfunctory and enthused, applauding Michael Krajewski's musicianship. "The important thing is that the orchestra live on," he said.
The music was classic Nero: "Superpops!" (as opposed to "Ultimate Pops!", which opened the season). Broadway tunes (mostly) provided the usual starting point for Nero, who improvised generously at the keyboard, especially in an inventive fantasy from West Side Story.
But in a way it was largely a family event. Nero's own was seated in a box near the stage — daughter, son, and grandchildren. And in a lovely gesture, he brought back Ken Brader, Pops trumpeter for two decades before being sidelined by illness. When Brader, now in a wheelchair, came out on stage, you wondered whether he still had the chops. But it turned out to be a canny move — musically most of all. The vehicle was "Over the Rainbow," which Brader played in a loose-limbed interpretation remarkable at the start for its airy repose. The high notes were there, too, triumphant and golden.
Other brass and saxes joined him, until the stage was lined with 11 soloists letting loose on "When the Saints Go Marching In." There, in this traditional New Orleans funeral tune, the connotations were clear: high-spirited, its liberties expressed extravagantly within the formal bounds of musical structure, the passing procession always draws an epochal tear or two.