Christmas Music with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops
The Christmas season invariably brings with it a host of associations. There are the imaginatively conceived store windows, the festively decorated trees, the hustle and bustle of shopping and mailing out the greeting cards, the aroma of cookies baking in the kitchen and the glorious music that the season has engendered. No other holiday or religious observance has inspired the quantity or the quality of music of that Christmas has. From classical music to pop melodies to jazz rhythms, the religious and secular aspects of the season have provided great fodder for composers.
"Music is something that expresses the inexpressible and is probably most effective when it's expressing exultation. When you have a holiday that is about unbridled joy, it seems as though music is the only way that people can give adequate voice to that. Certainly there isn't any holiday in any other tradition or religion that has the body of great music associated with it that Christmas does," says Maestro Keith Lockhart speaking by phone from his office in Boston's Symphony Hall which is the home of the world renowned Boston Pops Orchestra.
"That's a great thing," Lockhart adds with a hearty laugh, "Christmas is a time when people who don't normally take advantage of orchestral performances at any other time, think that it's important to have their holidays filled with music and we're glad to oblige. "
Now with such a plethora of music available, how does the Boston Pops go about putting together a program for their holiday concert season? "For our Christmas audiences, we have an incredibly diverse group. We have kids and their grandparents and pretty much everybody in between. Everyone has different musical moments in the holidays that are theirs. You know, the holidays are about coming home and coming to things you've been familiar with and loved since you were a child. We try to make sure that there's at least one point in every concert where people in the audience think 'Wow, they must have done that one just for me!' or 'That's my favorite Christmas carol' or 'That's my favorite Christmas television memory' or any of those things. We try to make sure that everyone has the ability to say that in the course of a concert. It also makes for some balancing between the sacred and the secular, as well as a leveling off between the classical and the just-for-fun. I think we do a pretty good job of it. We're aided by an immense library with incredible arrangements of all sorts of music and wonderful, innovative take-offs of various things."
One would think that the man who conducts the Boston Pops, the Utah Symphony and is the Artistic Advisor of the Summer Institute and Music Festival of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina to be pretty apathetic about Christmas music by the time fruitcake season rolls along, but that's not true with Keith Lockhart. "One of my favorite things may be the best piece I've ever commissioned for the Pops. That was last year and it was so wildly popular that I think we'll be playing it forever. We'll certainly be including it on this year's tour. It's David Chase's new take on ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas' The original song is one that's hard to get a good version of because everybody knows it and everybody sings it from the time they're seven. It's so repetitive that it's like doing an orchestral version of ‘Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer On The Wall'. We finally got a version that's...well, I won't say anything more about it other than it's the most virtuosic, over-the-top, audience screaming piece ever. It's the only time I've conducted a program where the concert stopped each time for a standing ovation after we played the tune--EVERY time we played it!"
Lockhart also likes Christmas music from the classical sphere. "There's a piece by Resphigi called ‘The Adoration of the Magi' that's included on ‘Sleigh Ride'; my second holiday album with the Pops and there's a piece by Ralph Von Williams called "A Fantasia On Christmas Carols' that I like and enjoy conducting." The Von Williams piece is found on Lockhart's "Holiday Pops" CD.
This year the Boston Pops will premier a version of the modern Christmas classic, "The Polar Express". "It will use Ellen Sylvestri's music for the movie but add the images and Chris Von Allsburg's narration from the book-- which has become for this generation what " 'Twas The Night Before Christmas" was a hundred years ago," remarks the maestro.
One of the most effective holiday songs that the Pops has performed was the tune "Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!" from the film HOME ALONE. It's an upbeat and uplifting melody which is included in the "Holiday Pops" album and doesn't seem to have been performed by any group other than the Boston Pops. "I'm glad we got to it first," laughs the genial conductor. "The fact that it was written by my predecessor [composer John Williams] probably had something to do with it! It is great though. It's a wonderful heraldic fanfare sort of thing We play it a lot. We'll be performing it back in the Hall this year and it's a ‘frequent guest' in our concerts on tour," chuckles the maestro. It's hard to believe that a movie which features so much mayhem could yield a delightful and endearing holiday tune.
The mere mention of the Boston Pops and their extended tours causes one to ponder whether adjustments have to be made with each venue. "Well, when we play these tours we play at very nice concert halls and we play hockey arenas and pretty much everything in between. At least at Christmas we don't play outdoor, which presents its own set of unique challenges," remarks Lockhart. "Sometimes we don't do some of the subtler moments in a concert that we'd do in Symphony Hall simply because those moments get lost in an 8,000 seat venue, but we try to get the orchestra to play well and stylishly together and we leave the rest to the sound designer. Luckily we have a good one."
One of the highlights of every Pops Holiday concert, whether it's in Symphony Hall or on the road, is the appearance of Santa Claus. "As far as I'm concerned, our Santa Claus IS Santa Claus," states the handsome conductor, "We try to keep the mystery alive, but one of my favorite moments was on tour about ten years ago. We had a Santa lose his pants. His belt broke so he spent his entire time on stage with me, holding his pants with one hand and his bag in the other." The situation could have been embarrassing for the people in the first few rows and Lockhart laughs when he adds, "It wouldn't be the side of Santa you really wanted to see!"
Touring with an orchestra the size of the Pops often leads to unexpected calamities. At one point the orchestra had just played a brilliant concert in Newark's gorgeous NJPAC and after the performance, Lockhart and his crew were backstage feverishly working cell phones as they tried to make alternate travel accommodations for the orchestra because Boston's Logan Airport was closed due to a snowstorm while the weather in New Jersey was fairly mild. " Fortunately we have a very competent and dedicated staff that takes care of that sort of thing, but it's difficult these days with fewer flights and more commuter flights and things like that," he comments. "Basically, we have to move a hundred people at the same time. Of course during the holiday season we have more challenges in terms of snowstorms and cancelled flights. We've had some pretty close calls and we had the end of a February tour cancelled once because of an ice storm, but that's about the only time we haven't been able to get where we needed to get."
The Boston Pops have become a household name because of their numerous television appearances on both PBS and on CBS, which airs the famous concert that the Pops annually play on Boston's Charles River Esplanade on July Fourth. It seems that much preparation and numerous "takes" would be needed to reach the standard of excellence that the Pops is known for in their television appearances. "Usually they're done in a single performance," explains the conductor. "What you have to understand is that a single concert is a two hour performance. For the purpose of PBS, it's whittled down to sixty minutes. There are things that don't go as well as we'd like and we have a choice because we can't use everything that we'd use in a normal concert.
During the 2008 holiday season, Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops will be featured on several specials to be telecast on PBS. One is what Lockhart refers to as a "clip show" that features highlights of various Pops concerts conducted by Arthur Fiedler, John Williams and himself. The other is a Christmas concert featuring the Canadian group called Barenaked Ladies. What's it like to work with a group with such a misleading name? "For one thing, they are four of the funniest people I've ever met," explains the maestro. "I guess that can be summed up by the choice of a name for their band. However, they're really good musicians and were very excited about working with an orchestra; it was sort of a first-time thing for them and it was funny because we'd presented them here in Boston on one of out big fund-raising nights during the holidays where all the older CEO-types were grilling us by committee about this choice. I think they honestly assumed that we would have several naked women on the stage. They were deeply suspicious about whether this was something our seventy year old patrons would love. Happily, everyone enjoyed their appearance with us. It was very successful."
Another television appearance the Boston Pops will have during the Christmas season is a venture called "Messiah Rocks". Lockhart becomes audibly excited when this project is mentioned. "I think it's going to be used for the holiday pledge drives on PBS stations around the country. It's a gospel/rock take on ‘The Messiah' that I think is quite effective. We recorded it in September. The production includes Broadway performer La Chanze, who was the big female star. She wonderful and amazing to work with. She's got a sensational voice and an empathetic presence on stage. I'd never worked with her before and it turns out she's an absolute sweetheart. She's a wonderful person and we had a lot of fun doing this."
Down through the years, the Boston Pops has hosted guest appearances by such diverse performers as Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige, Penn and Teller, Rosemary Clooney, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the aforementioned Barenaked Ladies. What is the criteria used in selecting the guests who will perform with the orchestra? "First of all, there is musical criteria that we want someone who will perform of the same standard of what we like to think we do," explains Lockhart, "Also, considering the wide variety of people who come through our doors for our holiday concerts, we want performers who can come as close as possible to pleasing all comers. Those are tough requirements to fill. "This year's tour will feature the chorus known as Gloriae Dei Cantores from Cape Cod; we use them frequently on tours. It's a sixty voice chorus and we'll have a narrator. There is no solo vocalist this time around."
The weeks leading up to Christmas are extremely arduous for Keith Lockhart. Of course there's the touring and the concerts in the elegance of Symphony Hall. There are probably a few personal appearances thrown into the mix as well. When asked how he plans to celebrate Christmas, the maestro quips, "I try not to conduct a concert. In the month of December I usually do between thirty and thirty five concerts. I will be conducting the morning of the 24th but I'll take the afternoon off. We have families-both Emiley's and mine-and we have a big, new house to entertain them in. We'll be hosting Christmas morning and Christmas dinner, so I'll probably be spending lots of time in the kitchen on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Then I have two concerts on the 26th." Lockhart has a five year old son from a previous marriage and a newly acquired puppy, which will surely add to the merriment in his household during the festivities.
The Boston Pops' holiday season continues in Symphony Hall up to and including their annual New Year's Eve Gala. That means that their special brand of music-making is available to all tastes and, like holly, mistletoe and Aunt Maude's heavily seasoned rum balls, may easily become another tradition associated with the festive Christmas season --if it hasn't already.
The Boston Pops Holiday Tour Schedule:
11/30/08--Timmons Arena, Greenville, SC (3:15 PM)
12/1/08--Joel Coliseum Theater, Winston-Salem, NC (7:35 PM)
12/2/08--Fergeuson Center for the Arts (Newport News, VA (7:35 PM)
12/4/08--Norrth Penn High School, Lansdale, PA (8: PM)
12/5/08--Proctor's Theater, Schnectady, NY (8 PM)
12/6/08--Jorgenson Auditorium, Stoors, CT (8 PM)
12/7/08--New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts, Newark, NJ (3 PM)
12/13/08--Harbor Yards Arena, Bridgeport, CT (7:40 PM)
12/14/08--Verizon Arena, Manchester NH (2:40 PM)
12/15/08--Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA (2:10 PM AND 7:49 PM)
12/21/08--DCU Arena, Worcester, MA (2:10 PM)
For the Boston Pops' Holiday Schedule at Symphony Hall in Boston, visit:
For More information about Keith Lockhart, visit: