Pops marks a three-part anniversary

Thursday July 1, 2010

LENOX -- When the Boston Pops takes the stage at Tanglewood tonight, it will be celebrating a triple anniversary -- the orchestra's 125th, Laureate Conductor and artist-in-residence John Williams' 30th season here, and current Pops conductor Keith Lockhart's 15th on the podium of "America's Orchestra."

Created by Boston Symphony Orchestra founder Henry Lee Higginson to offer informal light music programs and to provide additional employment for BSO players whose season was then only 26 weeks long, the Pops opened on July 11, 1885, for 25 cents a ticket and 10 cents for a beer. Higginson modeled the series on the concert gardens of Vienna, where he had studied music.

In 1930, Arthur Fiedler, 35, a charismatic and versatile musician who had joined the orchestra as a violinist when he was 20, was appointed conductor; "the orchestra of the Pops concerts," as it was then known, had gone through 17 maestros in 45 years. Fiedler's tenure lasted until his death in 1979. He and the players made their first recordings for RCA Victor in 1935, including "Jalousie" by Jacob Gade, a jaunty tango that became the first million-seller for an orchestra. Fiedler had spotted the sheet music in a bin and bought it for 15 cents. RCA officially dubbed the group "The Boston Pops Orchestra."

Fiedler inaugurated the free outdoor Hatch Shell concerts at the Boston Esplanade, now a July 4th tradition telecast on CBS and attended by up to a half-million enthusiasts. The "Evening at Pops" telecasts on PBS began under his watch, running from 1970 until 2005. The Pops also aired nationwide on radio for 30 years, beginning in 1962, and made many best-selling recordings.

The Pops first appeared at Tanglewood in 1948. Each year, Fiedler entered at the wheel of a vintage fire truck. A typical program would include an overture, a concerto, light music by Leroy Anderson ( "Sleigh Ride," "Syncopated Clock," "Blue Tango") or Victor Herbert, film or Broadway tunes and tasteful arrangements of contemporary pop hits. Fiedler, who said "we only play one kind of music -- the interesting kind," also favored marches by John Philip Sousa, especially "The Stars and Stripes Forever," which became a perennial finale.

He showcased jazz and pop stars of the era, notably Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack and Doc Severinsen. "He was a salty old dude," Severinsen recalled on the recent PBS anniversary tribute telecast. "But he really knew what he was doing all the time."

After Fiedler's death, the Pops reached out to Hollywood for John Williams, a classically-trained musician and former jazz pianist who had only occasionally conducted in public. He was already famed for his orchestral scores to films directed by Steven Spielberg and George Lukas, including "Jaws," "Superman" and "Star Wars." Calling the Pops "the greatest musical mixmaster ever conceived," he also continued the guest-star tradition, showcasing Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt and her father, John Raitt, and James Taylor.

Interviewed recently by phone from Los Angeles, Williams recalled that he welcomed the chance to emerge from the cloistered confines of his composing studio to connect with the public. He also developed a deep affinity for the Berkshires and composed scores for "Schindler's List," the first two Harry Potter films, and a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma at the secluded cottage he rents for at least a month each summer. "There isn't any other place I'd rather be," he said.

After Williams stepped down as Pops conductor in 1993, it took nearly two years to find a successor -- the then-obscure Keith Lockhart, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native who was associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops. Like Fiedler, he was 35 when he took over in Boston. He has conducted the Pops more than 1,200 times, expanded national and international touring, and led the orchestra on special occasions such as the pre-game show of the 2002 Super Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome, a first for an orchestra at the annual football classic.

Lockhart continued the tradition of inviting jazz and pop performers, notably Josh Groban, Dave Brubeck, Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Kristen Chenowith, jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, as well as indie-pop groups such as My Morning Jacket and Cowboy Junkies, part of a short-lived "Pops on the Edge" experiment designed to attract younger patrons.

Interviewed at his Symphony Hall office last month, Lockhart, still sipping from the proverbial Fountain of Youth at 50, acknowledged that, like other arts organizations, the Pop faces recession-induced box office and financial challenges. This summer's national tour has been curtailed following a shortening of the spring season in Boston, and BSO managing director Mark Volpe has reported 84 percent of seats sold at Symphony Hall for performances by the Pops last year, down from the peak of 96 percent in 1998.

"Programming has always been a challenge," Lockhart conceded, "partly because the palette is so broad, there are so many different directions you can go. Our mantra and our mission is to appeal to as broad and diverse an audience as possible.

"It's no secret that the economic downturn and the rise of Internet-based entertainment, the growing insularity of audiences -- people don't even have to have real friends anymore, they can just ‘friend' each other on Facebook, they don't even have to see the people involved -- really affects us, too, because that's a cultural shift."

Lockhart stressed the value of the live performance experience -- "there's nothing to compare to coming together with your fellow human beings and witnessing a piece of art in the making."

During his tenure, the Pops format has evolved from "a very generic, one size fits all, a little bit of this and a little of that" to a more targeted approach aimed at a demanding audience that seeks specifics and wants to know "exactly what they're getting for their entertainment dollars."

The former musical smorgasbord no longer works. "Now, people want this particular thing and they want it now, and it's our job to roll with those punches, make the adjustments and do something that still reaches the broadest possible audience," he said. "What we really want to do is introduce people to the Pops who never would have been caught dead at a Pops concert."

Tonight's anniversary celebration -- a reprise of the gala season-opener in Boston two months ago -- features Broadway's Idina Menzel, pianist Michael Chertock in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," several favorites by John Williams, and a cameo appearance by Doc Severinsen, the former "Tonight Show" bandleader who's now 82.

"What we'd like to do as an orchestra is to play music that is the most satisfying for us and is closest to our roots -- music written for a great orchestra," Lockhart said. "But we are a balancing act between aesthetics, being mission-driven, and our charter, to continue to draw a broad audience. We need to continue to explore what will draw the broadest audience without losing track of those roots."

According to Lockhart, "flexibility and experimentation" are necessary, "and those aren't two of the words you first think of in classical performing arts organizations."

As for his own future, "I'm not at all interested in any way in trying to beat Arthur Fiedler's record," he said. "If I'm lucky enough to live that long, I'm not sure it would be good either for the institution or the person involved."


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