One does not usually mess with an institution, especially if it's the stalwart 121-year-old Boston Pops. But even century-old traditions need some dusting off if they are to stay relevant. Keith Lockhart, the 47-year-old conductor and music director of "America's Orchestra" since 1995, is faced with the challenge of keeping the Pops fresh and exciting while maintaining its traditional roots. He wields not just a baton, but a magic wand that he hopes will invigorate the orchestra in the face of today's rapidly shifting entertainment scene.
It's not that the Pops need a whole lot of shaking up. Their 2007 holiday tour concludes today at the Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem, Pa. The tour precedes the orchestra's ever-popular Christmas concerts at Symphony Hall in Boston, which Arthur Fiedler began in 1974 with a three-concert series and has now been expanded to 38 concerts.
The holiday tour features the Pops performing a host of favorites. The orchestra will play its upbeat signature tune "Sleigh Ride," along with such standards as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "White Christmas," and classical pieces such as Ralph Vaughn-Williams "Fantasia on Christmas Carols," a favorite of Lockhart's. This year the orchestra will be joined by Cantus, one of America's finest professional male vocal ensembles. Concerts will conclude with visits from Santa and audience sing-alongs.
So what's the problem?
"We're in the middle of a cultural revolution where more and more people are getting their entertainment without getting out of their armchairs or having to pay for baby sitters," says Lockhart in a telephone interview from the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, where he is the incoming music director.
"This is a dangerous time for the arts. We are becoming in many ways a society that's walled off in individual surround-sound stereo and computer-console enclaves. We have to look for new media with which to connect to our audiences."
That search led the Boston Pops to boldly go where no orchestra had gone before. On Nov. 1 it launched the first Internet TV program by a symphony orchestra. The free program, which can be viewed at www.bostonpops.tv, is an online broadcast of the Boston Pops' "Oscar and Tony" concert and features Lockhart leading the orchestra in melodies from such Broadway and film favorites as "Phantom of the Opera," "Chicago" and "42nd Street," and movie themes from "The Sound of Music" and "Lawrence of Arabia."
Says Lockhart, "I'd like to take credit for every great idea we have, but I really can't take responsibility for that one. Frankly, I hadn't heard of Internet TV. It was brought to my attention that this was a new medium getting some attention and focus. I said by all means, let's do something." The "Oscar and Tony" online broadcast was developed in tandem with the release of the Pops' third self-produced CD of the same name.
"It makes sense that our first project would be associated with the album. Of course, one of the ideas of the broadcast is that people would be interested in it and go buy the album," he says.
But the real question is, will people be intrigued enough by the broadcast to go out to a live Pops concert, or will they be satisfied just to stay at home and watch the performance on their computer screens? Interestingly, this is similar to the concern orchestra leaders faced when concerts began to be televised in the late 1950s, although fears that TV would keep audiences out of the halls went unfounded. The Internet broadcast, however, does offer value-added features a running commentary and video extras that a live concert would lack.
Lockhart says it's a two-edged sword. "We are hoping that this new performance medium will sell the idea that ultimately the best experience is being with a community of people who are watching a concert live," he says.
The Boston Pops online broadcast makes Lockhart as much of a media pioneer as Leonard Bernstein or Fiedler, the Pops' music director from 1930 to 1979. Fiedler and Bernstein together exploited the medium of television in the late 1950s, and "Evening at Pops" had a run of 34 years.
Lockhart, however, faces a media revolution not even dreamed about during Fiedler's tenure. "We can no longer say, 'Gee, we're on TV and we make recordings.' That's not enough," he says. "The competition now is just ridiculous. I mean, when 'Evening at Pops' went on, there were just four broadcast channels the big three and PBS. Now there are hundreds and hundreds of channels and so much on-demand stuff."
Almost as soon as he replaced John Williams as the Pops conductor, Lockhart saw that the venerable institution was facing an image problem.
"I remember when I first joined the Pops, people would come up to me during receptions they were my age, maybe mid-30s and say, 'The Pops is such a great institution, my parents just adore them.' I came to the realization that in 20 years, they are the ones who have to be saying that," he says.
Lockhart's push to broaden the orchestra's audience led to a new series, "Pops on Edge," featuring pop-music acts such as Ben Folds, Rockapella, Elvis Costello and the rock band Guster that are attractive to a younger audience. Says Lockhart, "In the same way that Fiedler brought Duke Ellington onto the stage 45 years ago, we're trying to connect with an audience whose first thought might not be to go to an orchestral experience."
The series, started two years ago, has been a great success. "We have had the house full of 25-year-olds, which doesn't happen with the ordinary 'Salute to Broadway' kind of concert. I have never heard screaming like that at Symphony Hall," he says. "By and large, they are left going, 'Wow, the Pops is for us, too.' That's going to bear fruit. It doesn't mean they're going to turn around and subscribe to the Broadway series next year, but it plants the seed that this is a viable art form for people other than their parents."
Lockhart has been the music director of the Utah Symphony since 1998 and is conducting a complete Mahler cycle with them. He has announced he will leave this position at the end of the 2008-2009 season to re-establish his guest-conducting presence, particularly in Europe, and spend more time with his family.
Lockhart admits that conducting both a pops orchestra and traditional symphony orchestra is a lot of work, but he doesn't plan to give up either. "For me, it's what makes a balanced career and continued artistic growth," he says. "People characterize it as wearing two hats, but I don't see it as that. I would never give up (the traditional classical) side of what I do. It gives credibility to what I do on the other side of the coin."
In many ways Lockhart's dual careers put him closer to Bernstein than to Fiedler. More of a showman than Bernstein he's conducted in everything from a kilt to leather pants to turtlenecks he shares that conductor's ability to connect with everybody from truck drivers to university PhDs. Says Lockhart, "Bernstein was a huge influence on me, although I never met the man. I feel he is the model for what a conductor should be a true Renaissance man of music. He could speak a language that people on both ends of the spectrum understood. That's an amazing communicative gift."
The holiday concerts are the types of programs that bring the Pops its widest audience. Says Lockhart, "They are our widest demographic, with classical music fans as well as people who would never go to a concert like them any other time of year there are kids and grandparents in the same crowd."