BOSTON (AP) — Keith Lockhart was just 35 and a musical wunderkind when he took over as conductor of the Boston Pops in 1995.
Now in his 20th season, Lockhart has raised his baton 1,700 times to lead the group nicknamed “America’s Orchestra.” Along the way, he’s shared the stage with more than 250 guest artists as diverse as Aerosmith, Robert DeNiro and Big Bird.
The Associated Press caught up with Lockhart in his office at Symphony Hall, dominated by a well-worn Hamburg Steinway piano that once belonged to Russian composer Serge Koussevitzky. Animated and fast-talking, the now 55-year-old maestro — free of his trademark tuxedo in a blue polo shirt and jeans — talked about the late B.B. King, the importance of making concerts interactive, and his past penchant for jumping out of cakes and coffins at Halloween and kids’ concerts.
AP: You’ve been at this for a while. What’s the best part of the job?
Lockhart: It’s the instant recognition and affinity that people have for the ensemble. It’s kind of fun to be in an organization that has so much man-on-the-street recognition and appeal. We do a Fourth of July concert that has more people in attendance live than most orchestras see in their entire audience for a year.
AP: You’ve made the music so accessible. How does your new “By Popular Demand” live voting thing work? Your audiences get to pick the music?
Lockhart: I’m a total technical Luddite. I have a cellphone and I know how to use my email and get online, but that’s about it. The Pops has always been, to some extent, about what people want to hear. I thought it’d really be great if we could find some way to have the audience in real time choose the concert we’re going to do.
AP: So you give them some choices and then they vote?
Lockhart: Right. We’ve got 30 pieces of music, so they get three choices in each of 10 categories. We tried it the first time by asking the audience to pick their favorite “Bugs Bunny” musical moment. And as they vote on their smartphones or by sending a text, there’s a screen that displays the percentages. You see two going neck and neck, one pulling ahead, people yelling for their candidate, and eventually I call the vote and we play that piece for them. I expected this would be a fun little novelty. What I didn’t expect is the incredible enthusiasm and investment that people felt about being asked what they’d like to hear. It was electric. People were shouting for their candidates; booing the candidates they didn’t like; dancing in the aisles to the piece that won. One of the things in the live performance arts that we’re missing is this feeling of investment. We’re asking people to be there and passively accept what we give them. People feel a real need to be involved and to have people hear their voices. I think we’re on to something.
AP: How do you navigate criticism from symphonic snobs that this is conduct unbecoming a conductor?
Lockhart: American orchestral culture was starchy and elitist a century ago. But now I think it’s quite the opposite: You have traditional ensembles trying to find ways to be responsive to the needs of their audiences.
AP: It’s quite astounding how many guest artists you’ve invited to share your stage. It’s such an eclectic list. Looking back, any favorites?
Lockhart: I always hesitate on that. How do you say whether, you know, Martin Short or Steven Tyler was a better guest? I think some of the favorites were people who never worked in this world before. Someone like Buckwheat Zydeco — someone I don’t even think had ever seen an orchestra, much less performed live onstage with an orchestra. And some who were just so unabashedly nutty and fun. Steven Tyler does come to mind for that. And Cyndi Lauper.
AP: Isn’t it a little like Bill Belichick inviting Jay Z to help him coach the Patriots? I couldn’t imagine that.
Lockhart: Jay Z could imagine that.
AP: Sadly, you’ll never get B.B. King.
Lockhart: We almost worked with him. This was maybe a decade ago. He was all set to go to the Pops and he got ill, pulled out. We have a whole set of B.B. King charts in the library that were never used. I’m actually thinking we should find somebody who does a great B.B. King tribute and do a B.B. King moment.
AP: So after all this, what do you do for an encore?
Lockhart: There is no real encore to this job. On the limb of the tree I have chosen to walk out on, there is nothing further out. There’s no doubt that if you want to stay happy as a musician, you have to keep doing things that push you as a musician. The time to leave is when you feel like you’re running out of things to give.
AP: No more jumping out of cakes?
Lockhart: (Laughs.) That stuff is so funny. I’ve jumped out of a cake. I’ve come out of a coffin. I’ve rollerbladed onstage. I’ve entered the stage on an elephant. (Pause.) A real elephant. You know, everything’s appropriate to its place and time.
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