Friday July 6, 2012

LENOX -- Bernadette Peters is well versed at capturing the fancy of an audience, as a three-time Tony winner (in addition to five other nominations) and one of the most celebrated Broadway interpreters of the songs of Stephen Sondheim.

But on Sunday afternoon at The Shed at Tanglewood, her skills will be abetted by something a bit more impressive than the typical orchestra "pit" band -- the Boston Pops.

She's no newcomer to this mileu; she, in fact, opened the Pops' current season in Boston in May. Despite the size of the "band," she says she has a rapport with Lockhart that makes things flow smoothly.

"Keith is amazing. He just breathes right with you. You can feel free to do anything," she says in a telephone interview from her New York home. "It's an amazing amount of musicians, and he gets them all to work as one, and he has this great sensitivity to the singer. You float. And you know Keith is going to be right with you."

The concert will open with several numbers by the Pops alone, including John Williams' rousing "Liberty Fanfare" and a piece by Duke Elling ton. Then Peters will join (with a band including pianist Marvin Laird, drummer Cubby O'Brien and bassist Mike Rivard) for a selection of songs mainly culled from her favorites from the world of musical theater -- the work of Rodgers and Hammer stein, and songs from Sondheim hits like "Follies" and "Gypsy," are frequent choices.

The Pops has had many luminaries from the pop world sit in, from Sting to Steven Tyler, but Lockhart says a stage performer like Peters brings a special quality.

"The great thing about working with Bernadette is it's a complete package as a performer. There are lots of great Broadway singers, but to bring somebody who can really suck in an audience and hold them for that period of time--it has something to do with stage presence and experience and personality," he says in a telephone interview from the road. "And, of course, you try to look for people like that, especially when you're playing at a place like Tangle wood where there might be 10,000 people listening."

He says the essence of this sort of collaboration is finding common ground with the guest artist, but moreover, finding a musical place where the guest can become enveloped in the world of the Pops.

"One of the things that makes the Boston Pops the Boston Pops is that when we have guest artists, even ones as prominent and even iconic as Bernadette Peters, we do bring them into our world and try not to be a band that gets lost behind the guest artist," he says. "The idea is that they are bringing their art form into the world of the Boston Pops.

Peters says she enjoys the chance to sing favorites from the musical theater out of context, in the concert setting; she's fond of finding songs she hasn't performed onstage before, but that have gotten under her skin over the years.

"You have to approach each song like you're telling the story. I pick the songs, so I connect very strongly to them, and they resonate for me in a lovely place, some of them very deeply -- otherwise I wouldn't sing them. I'm honored to be able to do that," she says, noting that there is no "fourth wall" in a concert setting and she's free to speak with and otherwise interact with the audience. (A review of the May concert with the Pops notes that she ventured into the crowd for some numbers.)

"That's what's fun about doing concerts," she continues, "you're there to entertain and you entertain in many ways: by being joyful, telling a story, being dramatic, all those ways."

These sorts of collaborations between the Pops and prominent artists from other parts of the musical world can get the attention of audiences who may not have thought they were interested in orchestral music.

Reminded of a 1997 article in The New York Times about Lockhart's crossover efforts, in which another conductor warned that when "people go to church, they don't want to see the Pope in a bikini," he says he can't be afraid of entertaining.

"I do think one of the things that has done classical music a disservice over the years is we've thought of ourselves too often as a church. Of course there are incredibly profound, life-changing mo ments and experiences to be had in the world of great music. But we are, at the end of the day, entertainers, and there's nothing dirty about that word. And that doesn't necessarily mean you have to be in a bikini."