The Boston Pops at Christmas: How do you make it new?
Santa Claus will come to town, the herald angels will sing, and the bells will jingle all the way. Those seasonal sounds have been struck in December at Symphony Hall dating back to 1974, when Arthur Fiedler led the Boston Pops.
And it starts all over again this December 11 through 28, when the Boston Pops orchestra will give 32 Holiday Season series performances at Symphony Hall.
“There are a lot of people who take this concert as a necessary part of their holidays and would no less give up going to the Pops than give up buying a Christmas tree,” says Keith Lockhart, who will undertake the conductor-cum-master-of-ceremonies role for the 14th year.
Lockhart, however, doesn’t live in a bubble. “Collectively and worldwide, we’ve fallen on tough times,” he says. “From a very practical point of view, people are a lot more worried about their jobs, their homes, their retirement, all those things — which in the arts, of course, has the effect of making people a little more careful with their discretionary income. Disposable income is one of the first things to be disposed of.”
Although advance sales have been strong, no one takes success as a given. “We’re careful to make sure that people have a great experience and come back,” adds Lockhart. “In times like these, retention of your audience is very, very important. And the message is that even in the toughest times, we don’t give up the things that are most important to us. We like people to think there’s nothing they’d rather do with their families than go to the Boston Pops.”
Lockhart, 49, is speaking from the Brookline home he shares with his wife, Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Emily Zalesky Lockhart, his son, and a new pup, a Labradoodle named Oban (like the single-malt Scotch, whose color he shares).
Initially, the program was called A Christmas Festival; now it’s the Holiday Season series. “We do play a great deal of Christmas music, about 85 percent,” says Lockhart. “But we’ve done some great Chanukah moments, too. The point is not to have anybody feel excluded, but you can’t tiptoe around and be politically correct. You have to acknowledge that most of the audience is there because they’re celebrating Christmas. The larger message of Christmas can be applicable whether or not you’re theologically following what’s going on.”
The challenge Lockhart and the Pops face every Christmas: How can they give the people what they want and yet vary the program and keep it fresh? “It’s a balancing act,” says Lockhart. “The idea isn’t grand experimentation. If you went to a holiday concert, and heard nothing with which you were familiar, you’d want your money back. For all of us, the holidays are times when we come back to things that are part of our emotional security blanket or whatever your chill-up-the-spine moment is. And we have to honor those and honor as many of them as we can.
“That said, the program would get pretty stale pretty fast if it were just a cookie-cutter of last year’s concert. We try to identify things that are traditions to people but haven’t been our tradition, and bring them in. So the concert is a balance between ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Sleigh Ride’ and Santa’s visit and the singalongs and new things or new treatments of things.” (Santa visits during the second half of the concert and banters with Lockhart, who says they may touch upon the sagging economy this year.)
This year, Lockhart points to “great jazz treatments of carols,” and to a premiere of The Polar Express in the more “serious” first half of the program. “We have a setting for a narrator/chorus/orchestra,” says Lockhart, “using the words and images of Chris Van Allsburg. We’ll have more than one actor, but the primary actor is [the American Repertory Theatre’s] Will LeBow. He’s a very musical actor, which makes him useful interplaying with the orchestra. We’ll use the projected images — plates from the book.”
Lockhart’s expectation? “Kind of like being the parent who bought the shiny new bicycle and watching the kid unwrapping it,” he replies.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has been a longtime collaborator with the Pops, and last year its standout hit was “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The chorus will reprise it this year. It’s a very familiar song that Lockhart jokes could sound like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” if not done well. The chorus’s nontraditional, virtuosic version got a deserved standing ovation last year after its first Symphony Hall performance.
“It’s a great Irish stew with everything in there,” says Lockhart. “There are quotes from The Nutcracker and the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ but the funniest of them all is when [Queen’s] Bohemian Rhapsody comes in. That’s the point where the audience absolutely loses it.”
Lockhart will conduct 22 of the Pops’ Symphony Hall performances; three other conductors share the remainder. (Check www.bostonpops.org for the schedule.) Lockhart and the Pops also have 11 out-of-town dates, which began November 30 in South Carolina. In New England, there are six non-Boston concerts:
December 6 at Jorgensen Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut
December 13 at Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Connecticut
December 14 at Verizon Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire
December 20, two shows, at Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Massachusetts
December 21 at DCU Arena in Worcester, Massachusetts.
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