Even the most casual reader of Ionarts will know that we are not outspoken fans of the symphonic “Pops” genre and that we are perhaps a little quick to dole out judgments like “Schlock” and the like, when it comes to the music associated with the John Williamses and John Rutters of the musical world, or String Quartet tributes to Metallica or Def Leppard. Part of the feeling that the “Pops” phenomenon arouses in us (and I think I can speak on Charles’ behalf on this topic, to some extent), is the mistaken (?) notion that the ‘Pops’ lay some claim to being an extension of ‘highbrow’ classical music.
The idea of Crossover and Pops has long been sold (in fact, for over 100 years) to classical snobs on the account that John Williams, Fiedler-arrangements, and orchestrated Sleigh-bell rides will increase the listenership for Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Beethoven - if perhaps not Bruckner. But the whole genre is better looked at as entirely separate, with little or no overlap in audience and no inherent ‘mission’ to create such an overlap, either. If Il Divo pretends to have notions of operatic singing… well, we might cringe at the idea that anyone should think their amplified crooning-gimmick has anything to do with ‘proper opera’, but then their audience is not likely to be misled by that claim. Those who are turned off by it are certain not to mistake it for the ‘real deal’; those who lap it up are not the target audience for opera in the first place.
Ditto the Pops. If this isn’t entirely my own insight (or even novel, in the least), it has come through very clearly in my conversations with Emil DeCou (yet to be published) and my interview for WGMS’ “Classical Conversations” with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart. In an entertaining and relaxed conversation he shared his thoughts of what it means to wear both, the Pops hat (with Boston) and that of a ‘regular’ Music Director (with the Utah Symphony), as well as his love for Opera (he recently finished a run of Madama Butterfly at the Boston Lyric; Washingtonians may remember his performance of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe).
In a way, Lockhart says, he’d even be glad if there was no overlap between the two audiences for Pops and classical subscription concerts (although in Boston, where the Boston Pops occupies a unique position in the cultural landscape, there actually is), because it would mean he’d reach twice as many people with his concerts. Nor does he think the ‘reaching out’ effect is particularly important anymore – after it has somewhat outlived its original mission as a ‘selling point’ to orchestra administrators who needed to fill their symphony halls with (new) audiences. ‘I like King Lear and I like to watch Seinfeld, because they are both good at what they are. One is for the ages, the other great for its time’. Quality and aim (or genre) ought not to be confused, after all. And if Lockhart is a little less blunt about what constitutes “bad Pops” than is DeCou (“I’d never program Lloyd-Webber, because I think it is bad music”), he does have a few things on his list that he’d rather not touch. Like orchestral versions of Rock and Pop music, which he thinks serve neither cause. (Having once, accidentally and regrettably, listened to the Berlin Philharmonic’s take on Scorpions songs, I wholeheartedly agree.)
“Moment of Glory”
Scorpions / Berlin Philharmonic
unavailable in all good record stores
Lockhart is only the third conductor of the Boston Pops since 1930 – when Arthur Fiedler shaped that orchestra into “America’s Orchestra” over the course of his 50 year tenure. In 2007 Lockhart will become the second longest serving conductor of the Pops, passing his predecessor, John Williams. So far, he still seems to be having fun in this – self-admittedly – populist role. After all, how many conductors enjoy home-town face recognition on par with its biggest sports stars. Or, for that matter, have their own website that offers paraphernalia like the Keith Lockhart heart-shaped Key chain? (Or is it a Keith-chain?) Or “Unlock my heart girly-Tees”. Lockhart laughs at that with charming embarrassment – but acknowledges that by virtue of his position with the Pops, there is an element to which he cannot escape being a brand. (Reminds a bit of the hilarious season 3 finale of Entourage, actually.)
What he didn’t tell me when I asked him if he wouldn’t have to have to quit at least one of his jobs (Utah or Boston) if he wanted to spend more time conducting opera, was the fact that he would step down from the music directorship in Utah at the end of the 2008-2009 season. (Spending more time with his family is one of the reasons – perhaps necessary since his wife seems to have read “Mozart in the Jungle”.) [Update: Lockhart clarifies: To spend more time with his son, not separated wife.] He did say that he sees the Boston Pops job as a long term commitment – and while he has no ambitions of cracking the tenure record set by Arthur Fiedler (“doing the same thing for 50 years doesn’t sound healthy for the institution and the person doing it”), he will probably get more than a year on John Williams’ 13 year tenure.
Inevitably I get him to talk about Gustav Mahler (he mentions him with Dvořák as one of the two composers he particularly loves) and how he is coming close to finishing his cycle of Mahler symphonies with the Utah Symphony, won’t do a ‘performing version’ of the Tenth, and finds the Seventh and Ninth the most difficult to perform – setting aside the logistical problems of the Eight (performed before more than 10.000 listeners).
On the issue of ‘performing every piece of music as if it were the best music ever composed’ (the typical cliché answer of a conductor to the question if they ever fall victim to routine) he makes the good point that even if he can chose every piece he will conduct, he can’t love every piece equally… but points out that it is his job to try to make sure the audience won’t know the difference. One of the best answers I’ve gotten to that question.
Listen to the full interview on WGMS’ or Viva La Voce’s website under “Classical Conversations” or download the mp3 or Windows Media Player file.