Fizzle Go the Boston Pops

With sponsors bailing out and CBS signing off, Boston’s most rousing Fourth of July export has fallen off the national stage. After nearly 25 years, does its boy-wonder conductor Keith Lockhart, once the talk of the town, still have the spark to bring it back to life? —By James Sullivan
keith lockhart boston pops

Illustration by Eric Palma

On an afternoon in late May, Keith Lockhart took a seat by the window in Pavement Coffeehouse, just a short walk from Symphony Hall, and glanced around at his fellow customers. The engaging maestro with sparkling blue eyes smiled and sipped his coffee, notably unnoticed. “They’re all college kids,” he said. “They don’t have the slightest idea who I am.”

In his 23rd season as the Boston Pops’ conductor, Lockhart isn’t exactly pining for the days when his face was plastered across town, when cab drivers, construction workers, and folks at restaurants continually stopped to pester him. A stranger approached him in a supermarket on the Cape recently, he told me, and he brushed her off by pretending to be a look-alike. “Oh, I get that all the time,” he told the admirer. He has kids now, and he’s no longer seeking the limelight. Inside the coffee shop, he seems to relish his little pocket of anonymity.

It’s a fitting analogy for Lockhart’s iconic Pops. Once one of Boston’s most recognizable exports, the venerable institution is feeling more and more like an anachronism. Lockhart, 57, has admirably steered its familiar mix of classical standards and whimsical pop through an endless string of subtle reinventions, riding the relentless pressure to be new, but not too new. With 31 shows this year—a six-week season including Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr., two dates with the B-52s, the soundtrack from Jaws, and Sweden’s top ABBA cover band—the organization, like other “pops”-style orchestras, has struggled to stand out in today’s crowded sonic space. Ticket sales have remained steady, but since the death of the long-running PBS series Evening at Pops, in 2005, the orchestra has rarely commanded a national audience.

With one outsize, time-honored exception, that is.

For more than 40 years, the Pops have presided over the nation’s biggest birthday party: a free, open-air, cannon-backed fireworks extravaganza of a Fourth of July concert that draws hundreds of thousands of flag-waving spectators to the Esplanade. Millions more have watched in the comfort of their living rooms as the Pops unleash the climactic mayhem of the “1812 Overture,” accompanied by the most celebrated aerial display this side of the Blue Angels.

But recently, even the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, as it’s officially called, has shown signs of fizzling. Four years ago, citing declining television ratings, CBS opted not to renew its multiyear deal to broadcast the Pops on Independence Day. For the first time in decades, the concert aired only locally. In 2016, CBS returned, bringing radio stars Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas, as well as country music act Little Big Town, in for a show that steamrolled the Pops’ signature hits. Then the network cut the cord entirely. By 2015, Liberty Mutual decided to drop out after a decade as the event’s corporate underwriter.

And not long after Lockhart celebrated his 20th anniversary with the Pops, the pomp suffered more circumstances. In late 2015, David Mugar—the man who first imagined the holiday celebration back in 1974—announced his plan to step down as the show’s longtime producer. Before his farewell production, Mugar reached out to 1,000 companies and organizations to find sponsors. Not one would bite. He considered letting the tradition lapse. “Maybe we should have a year without the Fourth for people to realize what it’s like,” he told WBZ’s Lisa Hughes. For a moment it looked like Boston, a world-class city for the arts, was about to lose the act that had long been the proudest and most popular feather in its cap. Instead, the Star Market heir wrote $2 million worth of checks, bid adieu in style, and turned the whole operation over to the Pops.

Now it’s up to Lockhart, the wunderkind hired almost a quarter-century ago, to put on a show for the ages and return the orchestra to the national stage. The only question is: Does he still have what it takes to put some bang in the Pops?

 

keith lockhart boston pops bso

Photo by Marco Borggreve courtesy of the BSO

Curiously, the Pops’ greatest success was also born of uncertainty and flagging enthusiasm.

Arthur Fiedler, the orchestra’s legendary, long-running conductor, pioneered its free summer concerts on the Esplanade all the way back in 1929, a year before his official debut on the Symphony Hall podium as the Pops’ maestro. Seventeen conductors had come and gone since the Pops’ founding in 1885, but it was Fiedler who launched the organization into pop culture. Though the “pops” formula—“light” music programs including waltzes, marches, and regional folk styles—can be traced to 19th-century Europe, Fiedler defined it for American audiences, coming to epitomize the concept of a celebrity conductor.

For all his acclaim, Fiedler bristled at the notion that the pops formula was an inferior art form. “‘How could he lower himself?’ people ask, and I get tired of it,” he once said. “This damned snobbism is the thing I’ve been trying to fight all my life, every chance I get.” He thought the music should be accessible to all, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

Fiedler’s populist approach captured the imagination of David Mugar, who began attending the Esplanade concerts as a teenager in the 1950s. (“I was casing the joint as a kid,” he jokes.) Mugar’s family was a Pops underwriter, and as a young man he befriended Fiedler through their mutual love of fire engines. On weekends, he’d stop by Fiedler’s Brookline home to pick him up, and they’d tune in the police scanner and track down the blazes.

One night, Mugar gently broached the fact that attendance at the Pops’ summer concerts was waning. He had a few ideas, he told Fiedler. What if they focused solely on the Fourth? The show could feature a rousing finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” accompanied by an eye-popping fireworks display over the Charles River. The young pyrophile imagined not only fireworks but also booming howitzers and the pealing bells of the Church of the Advent, just across Storrow Drive. “I’m not a musician at all. I know very little about music,” Mugar tells me. “I just thought a bombastic piece of music would get people behind it, and that’s exactly what happened.” Coincidentally, the church bells, installed in 1900, are tuned to the key of E-flat, as is Tchaikovsky’s overture. “God meant for all this to come together,” Mugar says.

Fiedler was instantly receptive to his young friend’s idea. Known to wear the honorary helmets bestowed upon him by various fire departments over the years, he relished the idea that “all hell could break loose,” symbolically speaking, at the end of the concert. The spectacle drew 75,000 in its first year, 1974, far exceeding Mugar’s modest expectations.

Still, the orchestra’s adaptation of the “1812 Overture” drew some criticism. “We took quite a bit of heat for that in the first years,” Mugar recalls. “People said, ‘What are you doing playing a Russian hymn on our nation’s birthday?’” But those objections soon fell away: “It’s now imitated by hundreds of communities, I’m told, across the country,” Mugar says. “It’s a great tribute to the fact that it was a pretty good idea.”

The Esplanade crowd more than doubled in the second year, then erupted to 400,000 for the Bicentennial in 1976, setting a world record at the time for the biggest audience to attend a classical music performance. That night, Walter Cronkite effectively anointed the Pops perennial caretakers of the nation’s Independence Day party. “It was perhaps the high point of a day marked by crescendos,” said the trusted newscaster. For most years since—first with PBS, later with A & E and CBS—the concert has been broadcast live for a national television audience. The Pops were “America’s Orchestra.”

While audiences adored Fiedler, he often found himself at odds with his high-minded musicians. His successor, John Williams, composer of the themes for Star Wars and Jaws, was beloved by them. “The players take such great pride in their work. They want there to be a mutual respect,” explains Geralyn Coticone, who played solo piccolo and flute for the BSO and the Pops from 1990 to 2003. (Many BSO musicians, but typically not the first chairs, also play with the Pops; the Fourth of July event is performed by a third group, the Esplanade Orchestra, composed mainly of freelance players.) Williams, she says, is “such a gracious man.” He also brought in his own brand of populism. During Coticone’s early years under Williams, the Pops hosted stars such as James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt.

When Lockhart arrived, in 1995, the orchestra was wary. Coticone recalls a sense of trepidation among musicians. “There were definite growing pains, as there always are,” she says. “But over time, his comfort level increased, and because of that we relaxed more.”

Like Fiedler, Lockhart has kept one foot firmly planted in traditional symphonies. Even as the conductor settled down into his role at the Pops, he spent more than a decade as music director of the Utah Symphony and became principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra. With these two outlets, he could maintain the loftier side of his personal brand by conducting Elgar, Mahler, and Shostakovich. Later this summer, he will head to a small town in North Carolina, where he’ll mark his 10th season as artistic adviser and principal conductor at the Brevard Music Center, a summer program for aspiring musicians. As a teenager, he’d been a student there; his grandparents lived in the area, and his parents moved there in the 1980s. (When he got the Pops job, the community celebrated for him: “I was a rock star in that town,” he says.)

Lockhart’s work at Brevard has provided him an opportunity to start thinking about his legacy. “I’m not gonna leave a catalog of symphonies,” he acknowledges. “I’m a performer.” Yet he’s long been aware that charisma, no matter how formidable, will take you only so far. When he marked his 10th anniversary with the Pops, a dozen years ago, he told the Globe, “Keith Lockhart, by himself, is not going to be new and interesting forever.”

 

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Photo courtesy of the BSO

There was a time when Lockhart was billed as a heartthrob on the rise. “Tom Cruise or Hugh Grant: take your choice,” wrote the Globe’s classical critic, Richard Dyer, when the 35-year-old kid from Poughkeepsie, New York (by way of the Cincinnati Symphony and the Cincinnati Pops), was officially introduced as Williams’s successor. With his signature beaming smile and spry charm, Lockhart was perfect for the organization’s core mission of presenting a middlebrow version of orchestral music—featuring movie themes, show tunes, and pop and rock—with the aim of bringing new crowds into the classical music fold. Seiji Ozawa, who’d been the BSO’s music director since 1973, gushed that Lockhart was a “wonderful conductor” with “both personality and character. He knows many different areas of music, and brings a long, wide view to us. And he is a communicator; he is the man I wanted.”

Lockhart knows he was hired at the Pops in large part because of his flair in front of a crowd—not the aging bluebloods who once upon a time automatically renewed their subscriptions each year, but a contemporary hodgepodge of families, tourists, alumni associations, active seniors, and any other pool from which the group sales office could help fill the seats. Hailed as a boy king of classical music, he brought an alluring quality to the stage. Gossip columnists tracked his movements, and his name turned up in Mozart in the Jungle, Blair Tindall’s salacious memoir about the secret rock ’n’ roll side of the supposedly refined classical industry.

There was also serious pressure to succeed in the face of mounting outside forces.

For decades, the world’s pops orchestras have grappled with a collective identity crisis. Some years ago the Pulitzer Prize–winning classical critic Tim Page described the classical crossover category as “a sort of weird potpourri—a little of this, a little of that, and nothing very specific at all.” The National Symphony Orchestra has lately hosted the rappers Nas and Kendrick Lamar, making the old stories about Fiedler’s push for the Pops to play Beatles tunes sound quaint by comparison. Others, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have found new vitality in aggressively embracing modern composers and cutting-edge rock acts like Iceland’s Sigur Rós. “We are not trying to re-create the glories of the past, like so many other symphony orchestras,” conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen told reporters in 2007, as the L.A. Phil was transforming from a second-tier outfit into what the New York Times dubbed “the most important orchestra in America.”

Sometimes it seems the pops style just can’t win. Last year, the Times ran a story lamenting that pops orchestras from Philly to Nashville were abandoning the old light standards for flashy acts, even while noting improved ticket sales. Representing Exhibit A were the fans who were outraged that, during the Fireworks Spectacular, the Boston Pops’ signature “1812 Overture” had been relegated to a commercial break because of pressure from CBS. “I agree with a lot of that reaction,” Lockhart said at the time. “The network has very specific ideas about the demographic that they want to attract, which may not jibe with our ideas about the demographic that is going to get the most out of this, and have the best relationship with the Boston Pops.”

From a musician’s perspective, says Page, now a journalism professor at USC, complaining that a certain style of music is “beneath” you when you’re making good money (the starting salary at the BSO is well over $100,000) might be seen as bad form. “It’s a pretty damn good, and for life, job,” he says. “It would be ridiculous to complain about a career like that.”

Lockhart, who earns several times the musicians’ salaries, isn’t complaining. But he’s clear-eyed about the tradeoffs he’s asked to make. “It’s no secret, and we’re not ashamed—we have a very clear, marketing-driven, success-driven sort of thing,” he tells me. “We don’t have the same latitude the BSO does to pursue things just because they’re artistically viable. We’re still asked to be a commercial success in a nonprofit world.” His willingness to try to please everyone “could have been to the detriment of my classical career, I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve been incredibly lucky. I got a dream job at a very young age, and we’ve grown together in a way that seems to be positive. You have to keep reminding yourself that no job is without its costs, but the rewards are huge.”

When Lockhart was hired, brochures and print ads were pretty much the extent of the Pops’ promotional efforts. “We were still selling over 90 percent, and the season at one point was 10 weeks long,” he says. A decade later, the Pops began experimenting with EdgeFest, an undisguised come-on to lure a younger, hipper generation into Symphony Hall for the first time. Some of the collaborations succeeded, notably with hometown heroes Guster and Amanda Palmer, but the series didn’t really catch on and was phased out.

Years later, Lockhart doesn’t hesitate to take the blame for any “off-the-mark” adventures the Pops may have undertaken. Not that they weren’t worth trying, he says. “We all wish we had a crystal ball to tell us exactly what would sell,” says Kim Noltemy, the BSO’s chief operating and communications officer. “Sometimes you think you absolutely know something will sell and it doesn’t, and vice versa.”

The Pops still draw a crowd at Symphony Hall. But the orchestra’s national appeal has dwindled while other events—A Capitol Fourth on PBS, the Macy’s fireworks on NBC—have grabbed the baton. To reinvigorate the Pops, perhaps we need something more along the lines of Mugar’s bold strokes that made the orchestra a fixture of the Fourth in the first place. For the Pops to reassert their claim as America’s Orchestra, do they need to leave the past behind?

 

This March, the Pops held a press conference on the Symphony Hall stage to announce a new agreement to save the July Fourth celebration: three-year sponsorship deals with the Boston-based investment management firm Eaton Vance and Bloomberg LP, the financial news network founded by former New York City mayor (and Medford native) Michael Bloomberg, which will serve as the event’s media partner. Governor Charlie Baker made an appearance.

For the first time in four decades, Mugar, the outgoing producer, was conspicuously absent. The day after last year’s self-funded holiday concert—the day he’d usually joke about starting work on the next one—he met with Noltemy and BSO managing director Mark Volpe. Over lunch, they made a handshake deal to transfer production duties for the Fireworks Spectacular to the Pops themselves. The pact wasn’t announced until October. (Merging two 501(c)(3) nonprofits, Mugar says, “is fairly complicated.”) With Mugar departing, his company, Boston 4 Productions, has been folded into the Pops. Veteran producers Pam Picard and Rich MacDonald have stayed on. “It’s impossible to predict the future, but it almost always just works out the right way,” Mugar says. “It’s going to be very different for me this year, of course, but it will be great to stand back and watch it all happen without me.”

For Eaton Vance, which has traditionally kept a low profile, the fireworks sponsorship is a good-size splash. “I think they wanted something classy, American, blue chip,” says Lockhart, relaxing on a settee in a posh Symphony Hall reception room a few weeks after the announcement. “We’re perfect for that.” News of the fresh sponsorships accompanied word that pop stars Andy Grammer and Melissa Etheridge—one for the tweens, one for the parents—will join the orchestra for the holiday event. (Leslie Odom Jr., the Hamilton star, was added later.)

It’s been an anxious couple of years for the BSO in terms of the future of the Pops’ signature concert, acknowledges Noltemy, the COO. Mugar’s retirement as producer of the Fourth loomed; Liberty Mutual was already gone. The nature of corporate sponsorships has changed dramatically in recent years, she says. “So much of it is marketing-driven now. It’s not as philanthropic as it used to be. A corporation would say, ‘Hey, it’s the right thing to do, I’ll give.’ Now, they need to have a return on investment.” The commitments from Bloomberg and Eaton Vance have bought the organization some much-needed time.

Which makes this year’s Fireworks Spectacular all the more important. Lockhart, for one, only wants to stay as long as he and the Pops feel crisp. “I can tell you one thing,” says the second-longest-tenured Pops conductor. “I won’t beat Fielder’s record. He died in his 50th year—that gives me 27 more to go. I can’t imagine anything worse for the institution or me. Hopefully I’ll have the good sense to wrap up at a point when I can no longer push the ball forward.”

But for now, he’s intent on proving the Pops once again deserve to be called America’s Orchestra. “We want to ensure at the end of the day that it’s a great concert, and that means a lot more responsibility,” Lockhart says. “It really is in our court totally for the first time.” Will the maestro make the Pops sparkle anew? Will the Berklee kids at Pavement once again begin to recognize him? You’ll have to tune in to find out.




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