As the conductor of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, the most common question Keith Lockhart receives is whether or not he has ever actually played an instrument. He laughs at the notion of being able to lead a collective of world-class musicians without having some working musical knowledge.
“It’s kind of like asking a football coach if they’ve ever played football. If you didn’t, people wouldn’t have much reason to listen to you,” he says. “I was a pianist by training and a clarinetist for orchestra, but I was always fascinated by the process of assembly. The fact that you could put 75, 100 or 200 people together and create something that was so much more than the sum of its individual parts.”
Lockhart took over the Pops’ podium in 1995. Since then, he’s partnered the Pops with such artists as Chris Botti, John Mayer, Steven Tyler and Sting. Revered as “America’s Orchestra,” the Boston Pops delivers a British invasion highlighting the music of the Fab Four Feb 7 at the Moran Theater in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.
When he’s not leading the Boston Pops, Lockhart is also principal conductor for BBC Orchestra in London. In February, he is conducting a Festival of Death concert in London focusing on artistic portrayals and societal attitudes toward death. The work is classical, crossover and innovative as the concept itself, featuring dark compositions as well as an audience singalong to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’
The current tour with the Boston Pops extends beyond the Beatles to include music by such artists as The Who and Led Zeppelin that were influenced by them. “We actually start the concert with a British classical with Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ which most people know as their graduation song, and music by Handel and a really wonderful new version of ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ with an amazing new narration done by humorist John Hodgman of The Daily Show fame.”
“People say it must be a very powerful position. It’s more like a very responsible position.”
It was at the suggestion of an undergraduate instructor that Lockhart put down his instrument and pick up the conductor’s baton. He played well enough but wasn’t a gifted musician. Lockhart’s interests existed within the complexities of the orchestral charts. It was a puzzle, and he studied the pieces individually and as a whole, figuring out what fit where and how each move would impact the integrity of a composition.
“I was a decent pianist, and the ground is littered with decent pianists. I think understanding that I was never going to be more than that, one of my teachers asked if I’d ever thought of conducting, because I seemed to enjoy studying and understand music more than I did actually practicing it,” he says. “He was right. I’d spend hours poring over a score, but it was much harder to spend hours in the practice room finding out which fingering worked best. People say it must be a very powerful position. It’s more like a very responsible position. I’m a student of the game. I wanted to understand how the whole thing came together and analyze the entirety of the thing.”
To master the art of orchestral conducting is not unlike directing a play or film. An actor must know his lines and understand the value the delivery. The conductor must memorize every single line of a scripted orchestral chart and communicate the overall emotion of a composition in a cohesive nature.
“It requires a couple of hundred hours sitting at a desk and analyzing those little black dots and how it all links together and what you need to do as a conductor to bring that all together. The time with the orchestra is fairly brief. We get together the week before a concert, but, at that point, you already have to know everything you want to have happen. What the public sees is just the fruition of that. I need to figure out what I’m trying to say, and say it.”
Lockhart isn’t the first conductor of the Boston Pops to take on the Beatles’ catalog. The Pops has been playing The Beatles for nearly 50 years. The late Arthur Fiedler actually did a whole album of Beatles’ music, but those arrangements are long retired. While Lockhart regards Fiedler’s arrangements as “a little naïve,” he recognizes that even then, the 80 year old thought that this music was the great popular music of its day and really deserved a place in the Pops’ repertoire.
“They can do really interesting things that are really worthy of virtuoso artistry. They don’t sound like elevator versions of The Beatles which is our goal.”
“The Pops’ job has always been to connect the world with classical music and the material that people to expect orchestras to play with music that’s more in their popular consciousness. Any time you arrange something for an orchestra, it’s a process of translation, and the translation of pop music after 1960 or so got more difficult than the decades before that because music became very electronic and more guitar driven,” he says. “Now what we’ve seen over these last few generations is arrangers coming up who [grew up with] that music, and that sound is in their blood. They can do really interesting things that are really worthy of virtuoso artistry. They don’t sound like elevator versions of The Beatles which is our goal.”
Lockhart says Beatles fans often demand an authenticity from other artists attempting to interpret the music. Playing such classic pieces as Penny Lane and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is easier because the classical elements already exist in the music. In the later years, The Beatles embraced the psychedelic influences that reflected a new layered approach to songwriting.
“They have big orchestral elements already in them because The Beatles were pioneers. It’s harder in the more abstract music, but with great arrangements, those kinds of things can be really effective,” he says. “I think with Arthur Fiedler, there was more of the ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ The audience who grew up with this stuff really worships this material, and we’ve done our best to do something that people will say is an amazing beautiful sound using the incredible, melodic materials of the Beatles.”
Lockhart recalls sharing a memorable meeting with Sir Paul McCartney and bonding over a shared history with The Boston Pops. It was an exchange Lockhart remembers each time he brings the Beatles to the stage. “We were both on the pregame show of the 2002 Super Bowl together, and I got 15 minutes of face time with him over a beer in his suite where we talked about how much his dad loved the Boston Pops and had Victrola records stacked up,” he says. “It was very, very cool, but it’s an awesome responsibility, too. Don’t screw up. Paul is listening.”