Call him Mr. Lucky

Music: Keith Lockhart arrived at the Boston Pops an unknown. He has become an undeniably `legit' conductor.

August 14, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Keith Lockhart calls himself "the luckiest guy in the world."

Musically, at least, that's not hyperbole.

In 1995, Lockhart became the conductor of the Boston Pops, the best-known, most-recorded and, perhaps, most popular orchestra in the United States. Last season, he succeeded Joseph Silverstein as music director of the Utah (Salt Lake City) Symphony.

"My two main halls are the best in the country," says Lockhart, who conducts the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra tonight at Wolf Trap.

He's not exaggerating there, either. Symphony Hall in Boston is the only American concert hall comparable to the two or three best European halls; Abravanel Hall is widely considered the best-sounding hall built in the last quarter-century.

By becoming the music director of an important American symphony, Lockhart, 40, has achieved success in the "legit" symphonic world. That's something the most celebrated of his predecessors at the Pops, Arthur Fiedler, never achieved.

During his 50-year tenure (1929-1979), Fiedler made the Boston Pops an icon in the performance of light classical music, but he was frustrated again and again in his efforts to be taken seriously as a classical conductor. With the acquisition of the Utah Symphony, Lockhart showed that the Pops label need not be a lifetime ball and chain.

"If anyone had told me five years ago that I'd be this lucky, I wouldn't have believed it," Lockhart says.

But with the kind of national visibility provided by the Pops, Lockhart may not have needed luck. It's more likely that the financially troubled Salt Lake City orchestra needed him.

Performances by the Pops in Boston, at the Tanglewood Festival and on tour bring audiences more than a million strong each season. "Evenings at Pops" telecasts -- a popular feature on PBS for 30 years -- attract 40 million viewers every year. At least 60 Boston Pops albums are available on CD. The Pops label automatically confers best-selling crossover status, and the albums usually sell 80,000 to 250,000 copies.

It was Lockhart's good fortune to have ended up in Boston.

His was an appointment that no one -- including Lockhart -- expected. In its modern history, the Pops had only had two conductors -- Fiedler, who acquired legendary status, and John Williams (1980-1993), who arrived at the Pops with the legendary status he had achieved as a film composer.

In contrast, Lockhart arrived in 1995 as an unknown. For three years he had served as associate conductor of both the Cincinnati Symphony and the Cincinnati Pops. Before that time, Lockhart had been an instructor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, leading student productions of musicals and conducting local community orchestras in symphonies by Beethoven and Brahms.

But he had talent, youthful good looks and a winning smile and manner.

"The orchestra was looking for a more youthful demographic for the Pops," says Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, of which the Boston Pops is part. "Keith had the right stuff, and the BSO assumed the Boston Pops label would automatically do the rest."

That assumption was proved correct. Lockhart has been a huge hit. Audiences for his concerts, both in Boston and on tour, have been even larger than hoped. His five CDs, which feature album covers even more outrageous than those of Fiedler ("A Splash of Pops" shows a grinning Lockhart in formal attire falling backward into a pool), have topped the charts.

"[Fame] has felt a little invasive," the cheerful conductor says. "But there was nothing I could have done to offset it, and I've been much too busy to pay attention to it."

Lockhart hopes to be the conductor who brings the Pops into the 21st century in more than just the obvious sense.

Under his leadership, the Pops' commissioning of new works, which has languished in recent years, has begun to flourish again.

"Aside from Bernstein's overture to `Candide' -- which lasts about five minutes -- there is very little in our 20th-century repertory that compares to the best overtures by Strauss and Suppe and the best waltzes by Strauss," Lockhart says. "We asked ourselves, `Shouldn't we be the ones responsible for bringing more of this stuff into the world?' "

It was for that reason that the Pops has commissioned a cantata, "With Voices Raised," by the creators of "Ragtime," Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

"We wanted a contemporary patriotic piece," Lockhart explains, "music that adds the voices of Americans in the gay rights movement, the women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement to those of Thomas Paine and John Hancock."

He has also commissioned new arrangements of Duke Ellington's music, many of which he will conduct tomorrow.

"This is his centennial, and we're proud that the Pops, in the Fiedler days, was the first orchestra to invite Ellington to perform and record with it," Lockhart says.

Next season, Lockhart has scheduled performances that celebrate the centennials of Aaron Copland and Kurt Weill. And, in the subsequent season, he has planned performances of a new work commissioned from Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse.

"I think we have much too narrow a definition of what we mean by the word `classic,' " Lockhart says. "I'd like to play a part in changing that."

Boston Pops

What: The Jivin' Lindy Hoppers with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra

Where: Wolf Trap Farm Park, 1624 Trap Road, Vienna, Va.

When: Tonight at 8

Tickets: $13-$39

Call: 800-955-5566

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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