LENOX — Backstage between rehearsals last week, a cheerful Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops since 1995, acknowledged that last summer’s COVID shutdown of Tanglewood eliminated any 25th anniversary commemorations.
“Pretty much erased from the annals of recorded history,” he quipped. “That’s OK, I don’t like anniversaries anyway.”
Lockhart, 61, has an “evergreen” contract extended through 2024.
“I’m here as long as they want me to be here, and as long as I want to be here,” he pointed out.
He’s only the third Pops conductor since 1930; the indomitable Arthur Fiedler reigned for half a century, followed by John Williams’ 14 seasons, starting in 1980. The renowned composer remains Pops conductor laureate, as well as Tanglewood’s Artist-in-Residence.
On July 4, in a free, nationally televised and streamed event launching the Tanglewood season, the Pops Esplanade Orchestra (freelance musicians from Boston) performed the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first concert with an audience since February 2020. The patriotic salute was followed by the Boston Pops (mostly BSO musicians) offering a documentary-style tribute to Williams last month, and Film Night, the enduring tradition, last weekend.
With more than 2,000 Pops concerts to his credit, Lockhart noted that during the nearly 18-month pandemic, he spent more time with his kids than during their entire lives previously. That was the only silver lining other than honing his skills at the keyboard to record a video of Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth on the Cape.
At Tanglewood, Williams had elevated the prominence of film music during his tenure.
“He had great stores of knowledge,” said Lockhart. “I’ve had the great advantage of being the younger colleague of and learn from somebody who’s not just the best-known living composer, but probably the greatest repository of the history of film music.”
Film music started in 1927 with Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer,” the first sound film, and by the mid-1930s, as Lockhart commented, “you’ve got some of the greatest late European romantic composers writing for those forces, and they intersected with Williams’ career. He came straight from them and kept going.”
Active in the BSO NOW streaming channel created last year as concert venues remained closed, Lockhart noted that “it’s something, but it’s not what we do, and it won’t save the art form by itself either. You need the congregational aspect of live performances, otherwise you can find nearly every piece we play on YouTube and Spotify, if all you’re interested in is a disconnected auditory or visual experience.”
As he underscored, “live performance is at the core of what we do, it’s re-creative artistry. I was glad to be able to do the virtual stuff, but basically for me, all it did was to show even more profoundly that there’s not a way forward without being able to bring people together.”
Lockhart acknowledged that there’s nothing wrong with streaming co-existing with live concerts “as long as it’s used as a tool to drive people back into the congregational economy and also to expand the walls of our concert hall.”
Looking ahead, lessons learned from the pandemic showed the need for flexibility by major institutions, Lockhart surmised. “As wonderful as these institutions are, flexibility doesn’t tend to be the hallmark of the way we do things.” He suggested finding ways to present music in smaller venues, “more aggressively moving outside of our box into outdoor space.”
That would call for flexibility in the organization’s work rules “and the way that we view our jobs. This art form really needs all of us, more than ever, to be real passionate advocates, missionaries for its existence. We do have audiences who have a hunger, who’ve been missing it.”
Citing social unrest as affecting people’s interactions, “we need to be poised to be the ones who say, ‘this is one of the reasons we exist,’ and bring it back to that. How we do that, we’ll be mapping in these next few months. I long for a time when at least we know what the next few months will look like.”
Like all cultural institutions, the Pops and the BSO are focusing on more diverse voices, such as Jon Batiste’s standout jazz performances during the July 4 event.
The goal is to try to make the world of orchestral music resemble as much as possible the wide range of audiences attending performances.
“That doesn’t get solved overnight or by playing a couple of pieces by Black composers at a concert; it’s a much longer fix than that, and we have to understand that,” said Lockhart. Aside from continuing to offer 300 years of Western art music, “there’s also a forward-facing element that has to look at what this industry is going to look like in the next 50 years.”
Considering what has happened from all the various “awakenings,” Lockwood suggested “you can’t just sit back and let it continue to be business as usual, because that no longer fits in with what people expect from their cultural institutions.”
Certainly a banquet for thought. By the time Tanglewood reopens next June, we’re bound to see evidence of reasonable evolution affecting the concertgoing experience.