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A Conversation with Keith Lockhart

By Brian Bell, WGBH Boston
Excerpted from The Boston Pops: The Story of America's Orchestra

What was it that drew you to the Boston Pops?

Keith Lockhart: I've always been committed to what strikes me as one of the Boston Pops' most important ideals: that programs remain strongly rooted in the music that we would most like our audience to hear -- great music originally conceived and composed for symphony orchestra.

What about the standard Pops concert that takes place in the spring? There are certain restrictions, yet over the past few years I've noticed subtle changes. Can you describe these changes?

The three-part Boston Pops concert of today was established by Arthur Fiedler. I never tended to be a formulaic sort of person, but this formula works well and has worked for many generations of concert-goers. His idea was that these three-part concerts in Symphony Hall start with classical or light classical repertoire that would be at home on a traditional symphony concert. The second part would be devoted to a concerto of some sort, again drawn from the more popular side of the classical repertoire. In the third part, there would be the opportunity to hear things that fit more within the realm of popular music, the music of the day -- Fiedler's Beatles tunes and John Williams's movie themes, for example.

In our regular season concerts in Symphony Hall, we still adhere more or less to that formula, but I think that there are programmatic considerations that challenge us to break out of it on occasion. For instance, if we're doing a Latin-based concert, we might want to do [an Alberto] Ginastera classical work alongside a tango by [Astor] Piazzolla. I think that at times there are fascinating resonances between pieces that we think of as symphonic repertory and pieces we think of as popular repertory, and it can be very interesting, occasionally, to blur those distinctions and boundaries.

What makes the Boston Pops unique among orchestras?

First of all, its 115-year tradition. It is the progenitor of and standard-bearer for all the other pops orchestras in this country -- truly a unique and distinctly American invention -- that was solidified under Arthur Fiedler. There were certainly precursors: the Proms concerts in London, the Strauss-type orchestras of Vienna and central Europe.... I'm sure the founding fathers of the Boston Symphony knew those traditions well, but there was something in their conception of what Boston needed that was really brand new and uniquely American.

What makes the Boston Pops so successful is that the orchestra is always the star of our show. These players are capable of performing an enormous range of musical styles at the highest technical and artistic levels. People who watch our shows, at home or away from home, never go away saying, "I love so-and-so. And who was that orchestra behind them?" They go away saying, "I love the Boston Pops, and wasn't it nice that they invited so-and-so to be with them?"

One area in which I think you have made a distinctive mark is recordings. It seems that you are conceiving the CD as a different animal than what it's been in the past. What are you doing, how are you going about it, and what sort of ideas are cooking for the future?

What we have been trying to do with our recordings is capture on disc what Boston Pops live performances have always been about: the widest angle view of what constitutes good music. We believe that you can have peaceful coexistence -- and indeed synergy -- on a program between music that's deep in the classical symphonic tradition and music that is fun, immediately accessible, and known by many of the people in our audience. It's always been the philosophy of the Boston Pops that these diverse musical styles don't have to live in separate worlds.

When BMG proposed that our first album be a swing recording, I couldn't figure out why I would record something that is perceived by most people to be music of my parents' generation. The people at BMG said, "Yes, but we know that there's going to be a big revival in swing music and that it's going to be embraced on college campuses across the country." We recorded Runnin' Wild, and sure enough, six months later, everybody was doing the lindy hop in the Boston College student union. So it turned out to have an intergenerational appeal and sold very strongly. This got me thinking a lot about what the Boston Pops can do in the recording market that's different from anybody else.

Our second album, American Visions, was an affirmation that the Boston Pops is truly "America's Orchestra." What we mean by that is not just that we play the same five [Leonard] Bernstein, [Aaron] Copland, and [George] Gershwin pieces over and over, but that we also support American music that doesn't get heard or performed every day, such as [Charles] Ives's The Housatonic at Stockbridge, but nonetheless deserves an audience.

My third album with the Pops, The Celtic Album, which I'm proud to say was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Classical Crossover category, best represents what we want to do with albums today. BMG approached us to do a Celtic album because of the big revival in world music in general and Celtic music in particular. We thought long and hard about this idea, because what we really didn't want was to record an album of music that the Chieftains could have done better! In the same way the Pops concert hall experience runs the gamut from classical to pop, The Celtic Album covers a lot of territory -- from the classical tradition of the Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture to the music of Sir Hamilton Harty and Malcolm Arnold to traditional Irish folk music, movie music, and even Celtic rock! It also includes the music from Riverdance, which was the most cutting-edge selection and the one most recognizable to our potential market. I hope our audience develops a taste, or at least an appreciation, for this wonderful music, which would not be found on a Chieftains album or the Riverdance cast album. I think of The Celtic Album as a blueprint for future Boston Pops releases. There are other albums to be made that can take a similar view of different pictures.

So you envision albums that give the listener a starting point with a lot of forks in the road?

Exactly. What we need now are strong themes for our albums within which we provide people a wide overview, a lot of choices, and a lot of new experiences along the way, as we do with our live concerts. That's what we did with The Celtic Album, and it's what we did in our next recording, Holiday Pops. It has a lot of the music you would expect on a Boston Pops Christmas CD in the way of traditional Christmas music, but it also includes musical influences as diverse as compositions by [Ralph] Vaughan Williams and [Hector] Berlioz, Caribbean holiday music, and a completely pedal-to-the-metal, big band swing Frosty the Snowman.

In September 2000, we released The Latin Album. There has been an incredible resurgence in the popularity of Latin music in this country. But when the Boston Pops looks at this music, we're not limited to Latin pop music; we have the wonderful and compelling, rhythmically exciting music of Ginastera, and even our own Aaron Copland's El Salón México.

What is it about the Boston Pops that has kept it relevant, and what are the challenges in keeping it relevant today?

Those of us who have made this kind of music [for] our lives and our livelihood often don't fully realize that we inhabit a world that is isolated from mainstream popular culture and sometimes perceived as elitist. The Boston Pops has always stood for something different than that. In today's world there are so many distractions, so much noise in our lives, so many things competing for our attention that the quiet voice of the classical performing arts can easily get trampled in the shuffle. The Boston Pops is unique in that it is one of the few institutions that really stands a chance of shouting out the message from a tall enough pulpit that people can actually hear it. We can convey the message that there is great and significant music that is related to the monuments of our culture, and that this music can be fun, eminently enjoyable, and emotionally and viscerally arresting. As we grapple with the unknown in this new millennium, I think the Boston Pops is more relevant than ever because it's one of the few voices that can and will be heard above the throng. Read a biography of Keith Lockhart




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