Top of the Pops

Keith Lockhart, Boston's class act.

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click to enlarge THE CROSSOVER KID: Lockhart at the podium. - stu rosner
stu rosner
THE CROSSOVER KID: Lockhart at the podium.

Stefan Sanderling could spin plates on his baton at lunch hour on Franklin Street without anyone recognizing him as The Florida Orchestra's music director.

It's different for the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, Keith Lockhart.

"The Boston Pops is right up there with the Patriots and Red Sox as a local institution," he said in a phone interview. "One night I was walking down Mass Ave., leaving a friend's house around 2 in the morning. There were these guys washing windows on [the street] and they say, 'Hey, Keith Lockhart, right on!' That let's me know that we've really done our job - making the orchestra truly for the people."

Now that's crossover, folks. While he might not get mobbed outside of Beantown, Lockhart regularly takes his large ensemble on the road. The conductor, in his 10th year at the helm, has led the Boston Pops on 23 national tours and four overseas jaunts to Japan and Korea.

The current trek, stopping at seven Florida cities and one in South Carolina, has been dubbed "All That Jazz," and will feature lush interpretations of music by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman and George Gershwin, as well as more contemporary pieces like Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard."

"We're not just talking about Glen Miller," Lockhart says. "We have some contemporary pieces and a segment of Latin jazz. We've really tried to get a broad overview."

While pops orchestras regularly tackle the swing-era repertoire, they do not generally get high marks among jazz aficionados (a group of which I am a member). So I pose the fundamental question to Mr. Lockhart: How does a conductor, even a great one, get 85 symphony-bred musicians to swing?

The answer is a bit more complicated than I expect. First, there are two pops orchestras under Lockhart's direction: the Boston Pops and the Boston Pops Esplanade. The latter, which will appear in Clearwater, consists of freelance musicians (some of whom are members of the regular Boston Pops). Thus, Esplanade personnel can be tailored to the repertoire.

"When playing jazz, you need a great rhythm section," Lockhart explains. "In the same way that a tympani player is the heart and soul of a Brahms symphony, a good drummer, bass player and keyboard player set the tone and style for this presentation."

Lockhart confirms that the rhythm section has an impeccable jazz pedigree. And he has the luxury of another jazzy trump card in the group New York Voices, which specializes in four-part harmonies and should bring a bit of song-and-dance pizzazz to the evening.

Lockhart, 45, is just the kind of ultra-energetic soul needed to keep the Boston Pops' profile soaring. A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he landed the gig after serving as associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops orchestras. Lockhart was thrust into the challenge of succeeding the legendary John Williams, who took over in 1980 after Arthur Fiedler's 50-year tenure. The Boston Pops legacy dates back to 1885, when members of the Boston Symphony staged a special concert of "light music of the best class." Dubbed the Boston Pops in 1900, it's the most-recorded orchestra in the world.

Straight away, Lockhart possessed certain extra-musical attributes his predecessors lacked: youth, good looks and good hair. (Williams is bald and Fiedler sported an Einsteinian thatch.)

So in 1995, Boston got a high-profile conductor with impeccable musical talent and sex appeal. Lockhart has handled his heartthrob status in stride, and with a sense of humor. It's been even less a burden, "since I'm in the process of getting unmarried," he quips, and then catches himself. "But that's enough of a detour into my personal life."

But seriously - Keith Lockhart is one of the few modern-day conductors who has had to deal with real fame, and he seems to be doing quite well. "In the pop world, the Jessica Simpsons get famous at 17 and are forgotten at 22," he says. "In classical music, it's a much longer, more gradual approach. It puts people in a better position to handle things."

Despite his reputation as a top conductor of pops programs, Lockhart concedes that he wouldn't be satisfied if that were his only creative outlet. To that end, he is also the music director of the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City, where he oversees masterworks. "It's the kind of stuff that tests me and makes me grow," he says. "Actors who get famous doing sitcoms probably miss doing Shakespeare. This way, I get to come back from doing nose-to-the-grindstone [conducting] and do [Pops] things that are more fun."

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About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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