Interview: Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart Talks Nosferatu

He also reveals what it's like to crash a wedding with David Lee Roth. —Michael Christopher

This post originally appeared on Vanyaland.


Keith Lockhart

Photo by Chris Christodoulou via keithlockhart.com

While there are a bevy of haunting happenings to take part in this holiday weekend, few are as inventively interesting as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, a collaboration between the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and Berklee College of Music, taking place Friday night at Boston Symphony Hall. The classic 1922 F.W. Murnau German silent film is notorious for a number of things, one of them being the fact that the original score, composed by Hans Erdmann, has for the most part been lost. As a result, many different interpretations have been done in the ensuing years from a variety of artists and composers.

Friday, a group of eight Berklee students led by Berklee’s Scoring Silent Films professor Sheldon Mirowitz will reveal the score which with they’ve come up, led by Keith Lockhart. Vanyaland sat down with the Boston Pops conductor to talk about the project, the process and how it came about. We also got a bit of insight on what it’s like to work with David Lee Roth, as the Van Halen frontman performed with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra at the 2004 edition of the “Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular.” They ended up crashing a wedding together.

Tell me how you got involved with the Berklee students in the first place.

Well, at the Pops we’ve been doing projects with the Berklee students that date back to pretty much all of my 20-year tenure. I mean, they’re right across the street, for one thing, and Berklee has a fascinatingly wide, eclectic set of resources and talents in all sorts of fields who play all sorts of music—they really fit in with the Pops’ repertoire. We’ve done many things with them in the past: we’ve used their arrangers, we’ve had students as soloists, we hosted a jazz fest in conjunction with them a few years ago. But a couple of years ago, it got mentioned from the film scoring department there—which is pretty renowned—that they’d like to get involved with us, and they made the proposal that they’d like to score a big silent film and have it premiered by the Pops live. Thus, Nosferatu was born.

You’ve obviously been working closely with the students, what’s the process been like?

Well, of course, most of the process has been in their hands with Sheldon Mirowitz and the Berklee film studio, they’ve been working on this project over the course of the summer. Basically the entire class has contributed to the hour and a half long score. I first got involved in the beginning of September when I came into their class and got sketches from them against the film and got to talk to them and gave them the input and criticism, not so much about their creative ideas—which were excellent, by the way—but more about practicalities, how to make their vision come alive in the least painful process possible. So we talked for a couple of hours about that, they sent me changes, I sent them edits and corrections and thoughts on my part, and now what we have is a complete score that is somewhere in the land of 260 pages and an hour and a half worth of what I think very compelling music that goes with a very compelling film.

Where do you even start composing a score for a film which doesn’t have one to begin with?

You’d really have to ask Sheldon that [laughs]. My whole life has been to take other people’s thoughts and ideas and put them into action rather than create them myself. But I would say, especially in this case, it’s more of a collaborative thing, with eight composers involved. I think they’ve worked with Sheldon to create some themes that would be used throughout the score, which of course all composers do—John Williams would do the same thing—themes that are indicative of particular characters, or particular actions or particular emotional themes in the film. Each composer then took their own 10 minutes of film and looked at them and I suppose decided what went with what sort of music would amplify the action as it went on on screen.

Had you, or any of the students to your knowledge, looked to any of the other scores for a frame of reference? Because there’s been a ton, everyone from James Bernard to Type O Negative.

It’s a great film, it’s easy to see why it’s a popular destination. I have not looked at them; I’ve known the film actually since I was a college student, because I was a German major among other things, and my specialty was Weimar culture, and of course Murnau and this film ranked really highly in the output of those 20 years. I think I’ve seen it with one of those scores—I don’t remember which one—but it was probably 20, 25 years ago. So I can’t say that I was unduly influenced by them. As to the composers, I think you’ll have to listen to it yourself and see if you catch strands of anybody else in them. I think probably for most composers that would be a disadvantage because once you had something in your head it would be really hard to get rid of it.

What are you most excited about in presenting Nosferatu to an audience for the first time?

Number one, the educational opportunity afforded the Berklee students, but number two, I’m really curious to see how the audience reacts to this. The film certainly has a cult following and people who already know the film will be there but there also will be people there seeing it for the first time and I think the fascinating thing about this film is that so many of the things that have become horror genre cliches were invented by Murnau for this film. There are so many things in it that are the subject of Scream and other kind of horror mockups these days, but when you think about the genius of doing them for the very first time, it’s an extraordinary film. What I’d really like to see is how the score integrates with that to create an emotional world for the audience. I’d like to scare them silly.

Stepping away from Nosferatu, one of the things I have to ask you about is, what was it like to work with David Lee Roth?

[Laughs] When he was proposed, I was kind of like, “Oh, really?” You know? Come on. He turned out to be…adorable, for one thing. Really sweet, really unpretentious. Kind of like kid-in-a-candy-store mentality enthusiasm and jumping out of the sneakers on a regular basis. He was great onstage and really brought a big party down to the Esplanade. The funniest anecdote I have about him is afterwards, we used to have a wrap party at our official hotel—which was Copley Plaza at that point—and I happened to come over in the same limo or simultaneously with David, and I was walking him through the lobby on the way to the rooms we had for our little get-together. And there was a wedding reception going on, in the ballroom, and just as we’re coming in—I swear to god—the cover band playing the wedding reception started into “Jump.” The smile on his face was a “Mom, they’re playing my song!” kind of thing. But he said, “Oh, I gotta do it, I gotta do it!” He handed one of his handlers all of the stuff he was schlepping and he ran in to the reception and ran up onto the stage.

Oh my god.

I think the bride fainted.

That is unbelievable.

They had it on the playlist because they really, really liked the song, and all of the sudden, “David Lee Roth came to our wedding and sang the song for me.” [laughs]

And you got to share the mic with him for a verse of that song.

I did!

How was that?

It was almost as fun as sharing the microphone with Steven Tyler. They were both a gas, you know? You know what, I get to do a lot of fun stuff in my business.


 

‘Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror’ plays at Symphony Hall on Friday, October 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at bso.org.




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