BWW Interviews: Maestro Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops
When one thinks of the Boston Pops, recollections of a grand orchestral sound come to mind, along with memories of brilliant conducting by Maestro Keith Lockhart, incredibly fine arrangements and a long list of Broadway guest stars. These have included Christine Ebersole, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Victoria Clarke, Jason Danieley, Marin Mazzie, John Barrowman, Faith Prince and a host of others. In the coming weeks, the name of R&B singer Melinda Doolitle can be added to the list. Ms Doolittle, who made such a vivid impression on viewers of "American Idol" during its sixth season, will be joining the orchestra on their annual holiday tour. During these wonderful and spirited concerts, Ms Doolittle (no relation to Eliza!) will show off her powerful and soulful voice in such holiday favorites as "Joy to the World" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" in what promises to be a series of memorable concerts.
"She's got a sensational voice," remarked Maestro Keith Lockhart of Ms Doolittle. "Her recordings are just wonderful. The quality of your soloists adds so much to a concert. I'm looking forward to working with her." The Boston Pops Holiday tour begins this week in Storrs, CT and then move down to CW Post's Tilles Center on Long Island. That very evening, the orchestra heads to Newark, New Jersey's NJPAC. There will also be appearances in New Hampshire and Lowell, MA. "It's an abbreviated tour this year, but we're doing plenty of concerts in Boston's Symphony Hall," remarks the Maestro. "Touring is one of the most expensive propositions an orchestra can make and in these economic times, you can understand why we've had fewer lately." Next year promises to have many of the orchestra's previous stops restored, though.
"We have a knack for doing these holiday concerts," continues Lockhart, "It's one of the best things we do. I think we have an incredible library at our disposal and so many great arrangements that we're very proud of." The Maestro's pride is well-placed because many of the Pops' holiday favorites have become beloved parts of the Christmas season. Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" was commissioned by the Pops and is such a perennial favorite that it is even being used as ringtones these days.
The Holiday Concerts will also feature Gloriae Dei Cantores, a choir that has almost been a staple for the Pops during their seasonal concerts. "They're a wonderful chorus of about 40 people, who are very much in the 'English Choir' tradition," explains Lockhart. "They are part of a religious order that follows the Rule of St. Benedict and is affiliated with the Episcopal denomination. The group consists of a combination of people from the community and people who've lived and worked for The Community of Jesus. They're under the direction of a wonderful lady named Elizabeth Patterson who is just a master of that incredibly well-blended, nothing-sticks-out, English choral sound. They are absolutely one of the best choruses I've ever worked with." He continues with an anecdote dating back to one of his first years with the Pops: "Someone said that we were looking for a chorus to take on tour and someone else suggested this group. I felt that we didn't need a church choir, but rather a real chorus. I listened to some of their recording and was immediately sold on them. They're really extraordinary!" When they're not touring with the Boston Pops, Gloriae Dei Cantores can be heard at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA in the area of Cape Cod.
What makes Gloriae Dei Cantores so special is that when they are called to break out of their church-like quality, they do it with aplomb. One of the highlights of the Pops' recent Holiday concerts is their hilarious arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". It's David Chase's zany and ingenious setting of this Christmas favorite which included musical quotations from such well-known works as OKLAHOMA!, SWAN LAKE, DAS RHEINGOLD, and even "All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth". One would never believe that a church choir was performing this piece. "They're fantastic!" laughs Lockhart. "It's so funny because they're a moderately conservative group of people and they rarely get a chance in their normal liturgical chorus to have so much fun doing things. When they do break out that way, they're just wonderful!" He also adds that they're "a fine group of musical colleagues."
Recently, Keith Lockhart was named the seventh principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra. He will continue to hold the baton at the Boston Pops, though. In fact, he was on tour with the British orchestra as he spoke on the phone while on a bus heading down to Orlando after a performance in Atlanta. How would he compare the two groups? "Each orchestra is made up of the unique personalities of its members but also its own distinct repertory. The Pops has its share of light classics, showtunes and popular music and the BBC does everything from purely classical subscription performances to backing West End stars and rock singers. The orchestra also does lots of film scoring as they did for the movie ‘The Blue Planet' and there's that sort of versatility that the two orchestras have in common. I suppose one of the differences is just the nature of the work with a recording orchestra," reflects Lockhart. "There's a lot more emphasis on recording and our services being provided specifically for the radio." This is all new territory for the conductor who admits to never having done any film scoring. "That's a hard racket," he comments. "Of course the person who's a master of it is John, my predecessor at the Pops." As most people know, John Williams composed the musical scores for such memorable films as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T." and "Star Wars".
Conducting for a film soundtrack and conducting a narrative piece for a live performance can have certain similarities and the Boston Pops is known for presenting such narratives as "The Night Before Christmas' and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" which incorporates orchestra, chorus and a narrator. In the more recent presentation of "The Polar Express", huge video images were added to the mix, making it almost a cinematic experience for the concert-goers. However, the Pops recently ventured into a more serious realm when they performed the premiere of "The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers." Famous speeches by John, Robert and Edward Kennedy inspired the work's commission. It combines their well-crafted words with a sweeping and emotional score for the orchestra. Lockhart had been fantasizing about bringing this ambitious composition to life for 10 years. With the passing of his friend, Sen. Edward Kennedy, last August, Lockhart made it a reality. The result is something that is very special. "The reaction has been largely very positive. We've premiered in May when Cherry Jones, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Al Pacino serving as narrators, in a concert for Kennedy family at a Democratic Party fundraiser, and then on the Fourth of July. We also did it at Tanglewood this summer with Alec Baldwin doing the narrating chores. In Hyannis, which is a place where Senator Kennedy always took in the Boston Pops concerts, we played it again with Chris Cooper narrating. Obviously the Kennedys are a family who stir strong emotions in more than one direction but in Massachusetts they are true royalty. The relationship that The Common folk have with the Kennedys-even ones who've never met them-is incredibly personal."
When the question about whether this musical piece is making a political statement, Lockhart responds, "It's like saying that Abraham Lincoln's words are a political statement. At some point these words belong to all of us. Listening to the text, I feel that these are some of the most inspirational things that have been said by American politicians. That applies to all three brothers. They are about America's responsibility to itself and to the world. It's hard to imagine anybody-even the person who is the most diametrically opposed to these men-having issues with what they said. These are beautiful ideas that are beautifully spoken." Certainly these words strike an emotional response from concert-goers because the Boston Pops has boxes of Kleenex readily available when it's performed at Symphony Hall.
Getting back to the Holiday Concerts, Lockhart remarks that there's yet another guest star who will gladly make an appearance with the orchestra and that's Santa Claus himself. No matter how busy the jolly elf is, he finds time to visit the Pops during the Christmas season. The banter between him and Maestro Lockhart is usually quite "choice". Several years ago the audience learned that Santa had refurbished the home he shares with Mrs. Claus in the North Pole. After extending the porch and clearing away a few trees, the Christmas Couple learned they really could see Russia from their backyard! It brought gales of laughter from the adults in the crowd. "We're doing a slightly different schtick this year," laughed Lockhart, "But you'll have to come to one of our concerts to find out what it is!"
Certainly we will. The Boston Pops Holiday Concerts are truly a part of America's Christmas traditions and they feature something for every generation in the family. Whether they are performing on tour or in Symphony Hall, they highly recommended for high spirits, inspiration and top notch musical performances.
The Boston Pops is on the internet at www.bostonpops.org. For further information, call the Boston Pops at 617-266-1492. All programs and artists are subject to change.
BOSTON POPS 2010 NEW ENGLAND HOLIDAY TOUR ITINERARY
December 4 at 8pm, Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, Storrs, CT
December 5 at 2pm, Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, Greenvale, NY
December 5 at 7pm, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, NJ
December 18 at 7:30pm, Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, NH
December 19 at 2:30pm, Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, MA