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Friday, May 11, 2018

You’re the Pops

From the Vault Dept.: There was a time when major orchestras visited the Capital Region with alarming frequency. True, they didn’t draw much of an audience – this is a stubbornly middlebrow crowd – but some ensembles, like the Boston Pops, have enough of a non-threatening reputation to fill lots of seats. Here’s my report of their visit in 2000, followed by an interview with conductor Keith Lockhart (now in his 23rd year helming the group).


“DOESN’T THE GYM LOOK GREAT TONIGHT?” So exclaimed Dom DeLuise before he launched into a reading of Clement Moore’s Visit from St. Nicholas with the Boston Pops last week, and he certainly captured the essence of the ambiance.

Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops
Because the Boston Pops gave a sell-out performance at Proctor’s Theatre two years ago, this year’s appearance was booked into the much larger arena. The orchestra was placed on risers at one end of the rink, the bulk of the floor space given to tables at which the best-heeled guests were seated, sipping wine. The rest of us took to the plastic chairs in the risers.

Two very contrasting characteristics were at work during this concert. First, of course, is the excellent orchestra and its dynamic conductor, Keith Lockhart, whose energy is so infectious that he could conduct a road repair crew and make it sound exciting. The orchestra is famous for its sound, but that quality was lost thanks to the second characteristic: the hall.

With a microphone poised above each music stand, there were plenty of channels mixed into the monaural blare that issued from the speaker columns hanging above the orchestra. Although I was seated fairly close to ringside, the amplification was such that none of the acoustic sound of the ensemble leaked past the curtain of speakers. And the amplified sound was harsh and metallic, problems aggravated by the boomy nature of the hall itself.

A further irritant is the eye pollution. You cannot regard a square inch of the annoyingly named arena without some company logo intruding. I assumed those companies are paying to have their logos so displayed, but the ticket prices still were top dollar.

Moving the event from Proctor’s to the Pepsi Arena meant a loss of acoustical integrity, loss of the sound of the orchestra and loss of the dignity of the space itself. The only morally sound justification for such a move, then, would have been to bring this event to a greater number of people at vastly reduced prices, or even for free. In fact, folks at the tables were paying $150 a seat.

The program itself mixed the standard and less familiar, with an excellent chorus, Gloriae dei Cantores (Elizabeth Patterson, dir.), offering vocal support throughout, with especially endearing moments in an arrangement by Patrick Hollenbeck (one of the orchestra’s percussionists) of a medley of holiday tunes collected by John Jacob Niles.

Guest vocalist Rob Mathes, on the other hand, has an amplification-required kind of voice, but it’s also the kind of voice you eventually wish you could turn down. He was tolerable in his pseudo-jazzy takes on holiday standards, but when he laid into a lengthy original number, “William the Angel,” the sentimental vacuousness of the song was torturous.

Comic relief arrived, unannounced, in the form of Dom DeLuise, who managed some very funny shtick with the orchestra and chorus before launching into a somewhat underprepared reading of the famous “Night before Christmas” verse. Then Santa arrived to cheer on the throng as we all finished up with a sing-along.

Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra
Conducted by Keith Lockhart
Pepsi Arena, Dec. 5

Metroland Magazine, 7 Dec. 2000


Keith Lockhart: Something New

THEY SOLD OUT PROCTOR’S THEATRE when they visited two years ago, so this time the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra takes over Albany’s Pepsi Arena for a concert at 8 PM Tuesday, Dec. 5. One of the challenges, according to conductor Keith Lockhart, is to balance the traditional fare that longtime audience members expect with something new for the season.

Keith Lockhart | Photo by Robert E. Klein
“Many, many people come back to hear the stuff they recognize,” says Lockhart. “They find comfort in tradition. But we don’t want it to be a cookie cutter program, so it changes in subtle ways.” Well-known songs nestle with selections from such disparate dramatic offerings as The Nutcracker and A Charlie Brown Christmas, along with an accompanied reading of Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas and a Christmas is for Children sing-along medley.

The man at the helm of this outfit is a press agent’s dream come true. The 41-year-old Lockhart is a Poughkeepsie native who came to conducting later in life than many, but whose sure technique and matinee-idol good looks have made him an extremely popular successor to a legacy that included a 49-year stint by Arthur Fiedler and 13 years from film composer John Williams, now conductor laureate.

“I began music studies with the piano and clarinet,” says Lockhart, “and was a half-hearted music major in college, but I never thought I’d be Horowitz. Piano wasn’t the right medium for me.” He nevertheless continued to pursue music, finding his vocation during a summer training program in Aspen, Colorado, when he was 20. “I went into the conducting program there with virtually no experience beyond the thought, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ Twenty years later I still find it challenging and enjoyable.” He gained degrees from Furman University in South Carolina and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon, becoming director of Orchestral Activities at the latter as well as conductor of the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra.

He’s already had a diverse career that included a concert tour as music director for Mandy Patinkin, conductor for a Mel Tormé Christmas CD, and guest conductor appearances with major orchestras across the country and around the world. But the Boston Pops appointment in 1995 catapulted him into a spotlight he’d never before experienced. And, as the covers of his six CDs demonstrate, his visage has become the orchestra’s newest selling point.

Which is ironic, he explains, because “I’m not particularly outgoing or a publicity nut, but this is one of my responsibilities. I want the orchestra to be visible, and I want people to buy my recordings. And there’s so much competition for attention.” With such visibility comes the challenging of keeping the orchestra and its traditions alive without having, as he puts it, “the oh, so civilized small voices of classical music getting swallowed up in the stampede. We don’t want this orchestra to sink beneath the waves and become the Lawrence Welk show.”

Does he ever want to bust loose and conduct a big Mahler or Shostakovich symphony? “I have the Utah Symphony Orchestra when I want to do that.” He’s been music director of that ensemble since 1998. “It’s a 52-weeks-a-year major organization, so my work there nicely balances what I do with the Boston Pops. With the Utah, I conduct major symphonic works and commission new ones. The Boston Pops gives me a lot more visibility and has greater outreach potential.”

Following successful recordings of Celtic music, Glenn Miller songs, a holiday program and even contemporary American fare, Lockhart and the Boston Pops recently released The Latin Album, an impressive collection of classical and traditional pieces. “It’s a formula that works very well,” observes the conductor. “Every 25 years, it seems, we have an invasion of Latin music. Today we have, on the one hand, Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera; on the other, we’re listening to more sophisticated things like the Buena Vista Social Club.” Classical works by Copland, Ginastera, Moncayo and Guàrnieri nestle with pop songs like “Perfidia” and “Jalousie.”

“We tried to take the programming several steps further than anything we’ve done before,” says Lockhart. “We also included Andean folk music and a mariachi band. But it’s significant that half of the selections come from the classical symphonic repertory.”

The Albany holiday event, co-sponsored by Proctor’s Theatre and WMHT, is part of a lengthy season of holiday concerts. “This is my sixth such tour with the orchestra,” says Lockhart. “We’ll be performing 60 concerts in all, with a two-week tour of the Boston area at the front end before we go across the country. Then we’re back in Boston for three weeks, culminating in a concert on New Year’s Eve.” He adds, laughing, “It’s enough to take the holiday spirit out of anyone.”

Joining him on the tour is songwriter-arranger-singer Rob Mathes, “who has worked with people like Eric Clapton and Elton John. If you want to put him in a cubbyhole, you could say he’s contemporary Christian with some rhythm and blues and a tinge of new age. Both in his singing and his writing he has a very contemporary sound. And we need it: We can’t do a soprano singing ‘O Holy Night’ every year.” Mathes has two original songs on the program as well as arrangements he’ll sing of familiar favorites.

Also on hand will be the Cape Cod-based chorus Gloriæ dei Cantores, spending its fifth year as part of the holiday Pops program. Reminiscent of the orchestra’s Boston programs is the cabaret-style seating that will allow concertgoers to enjoy refreshments on the main floor of the Pepsi Arena. Over 100 tables (good for four to six people apiece) will be available; price is $150 per ticket. Regular seats are $65 for the first tier, $45 for the second.

Metroland Magazine, 30 November 2000

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