This story features “The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra” presented by Strathmore. Learn more about this performance and get tix on the event page here.
The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra — popularly known as the Boston Pops, or even The Pops, for short — has always aimed to appeal to the widest possible audience with its broad spectrum of styles. According to long-time conductor Keith Lockhart, these encompass jazz, pop, indie rock and big band. Not to mention film music, the Great American Songbook, Broadway and classical.
It has been called a “classic-with-a-twist repertoire.”
Under the helm of Lockhart, now in his 24th year at the Pops, the orchestra has injected even more pop into the mix. He has brought such acts into the orchestra programming as blues queen Jennifer Hudson, country stars Little Big Town and rock ‘n’ roll greats Aerosmith.
“I love the classic classics — music by Mahler, Shostakovich, Stravinsky — but I also love that ours is a populist institution, ” said Lockhart, a pianist and clarinetist as well as a conductor.
It was exciting to be considered for a position that had been open only once before — when original conductor Arthur Fiedler retired in 1980 — and to conduct music he “cared about, with an incredibly wide range of repertoire.”
The Pops originated as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 — and has remained so. (The symphony’s current conductor is Andris Nelsons.) The first several presentations, until 1900, were called “Promenade Concerts.” These performances primarily combined light classical music with current musical-theater hits.
After Fiedler began his 50-year tenure as Pops conductor in 1930, the orchestra’s popularity spread far beyond Boston, through recordings, radio and television and concerts targeted to those who didn’t think they were necessarily classical-music lovers.
But the link to Boston is clear in the Pops’ moniker. The “Esplanade” in its formal name refers to a strip of park along the city’s Charles River.
The two concerts the orchestra will play at Strathmore on Sunday, April 8, continue its diverse tradition. The first part is devoted to American classics, or what Lockhart called the “American musical heart and soul” — including “Overture to ‘Candide'” and an excerpt from “On the Town,” both by Leonard Bernstein; Aaron Copland’s “Letter from Home,” “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” from “On Your Toes,” by Richard Rodgers; and Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
“This year is good to Leonard Bernstein, in celebration of the centennial of his birth,” he said.
Also, in the first half is George Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue,” to be played by piano soloist Michael Chertock.
This marks one of scores of appearances he has made with the Pops. Previously, Chertock played Gershwin’s Concerto in F Major with Lockhart and the National Youth Orchestra of London. He performed the world premiere of “Jeux Deux” for hyper-piano and orchestra by Todd Machover, commissioned by the Pops expressly for him.
“The Boston Pops is a fantastically versatile orchestra that really bursts with life on stage,” Chertock said. “I’ve had the privilege of performing with the them and Maestro Keith Lockhart in at least 60 or 70 concerts. I have traveled with them to Asia and across United States and have also gotten to perform with the orchestra in Boston’s Symphony Hall many times.”
How does a musician give individuality to the performance of a piece as well known and frequently played — including by him — such as “Rhapsody in Blue”?
“As many times as I have played ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ it is still something of a mystery to me,” Chertock replied. “The structure is so spontaneous and unique. And yet, it takes the audience on a journey that always seems to lead to a powerful conclusion. I never tire of trying to figure out what makes it so effective. It doesn’t hurt that the piece has so many melodic hooks and rhythms that grab the ear.”
Chertock loves playing the classic American works of the 20th century: Gershwin, Ellington, Copland, Barber, and Bernstein. “These composers wrestled with musical trends in the 20th century like jazz, folk music and European developments, and considered them through the distinct outlook of a composer in America.”
Lockhart is enthusiastic at Chertock’s ongoing collaboration with the orchestra. “He’s a great musician and a great guy,” he said.
The second half of the program will include two very different film scores by John Williams, Conductor Laureate of the orchestra: “Cantina Band” from “Star Wars” and the theme from “Schindler’s List.”
Also featured is a medley entitled “You Must Remember This: A Cinematic Sing-Along (arranged by Sebesky). It showcases popular songs from movies that took on a life of their own, including “As Time Goes By” (“Casablanca”); “Moon River” (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”); the title song from “The Way We Were,” and “Over the Rainbow” (“The Wizard of Oz”).
There will also be “surprises” from ABBA and Queen.
The Pops’ mission has taken the orchestra and Lockhart around the country and the world. Having overseen 2,000 concerts so far, he recalls many highlights — among them the orchestra’s four Asia tours; the Super Bowl 2002, the “first significant public event” after 9/11; and the Fourth of July concert, viewed by half-a-million people live, with millions more watching on TV. “These are some of the spectacular moments, but I guess you could say my favorite concert is the last one we’ve done, which soon will be Bethesda,” Lockhart laughed.
For Lockhart, every concert remains an “immense challenge and opportunity” to connect with a new audience and introduce it to new — or old — classical music. He hopes that anyone in the area who hasn’t experienced the Boston Pops, and certainly those who have, will attend the Strathmore concerts.
“We’re the orchestra for people who aren’t sure they like orchestras, playing classical music for people who aren’t sure they like classical music,” he said.
The Boston Pops will present two identical concerts, on Sunday, April 8, at 2 and 7 p.m., at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For tickets, ranging from $55 to $125, visit www.strathmore.org. or call 301-581-5100.