The last time conductor Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra appeared at The Palladium was in February, 2, 2013 during its inaugural season. The world renowned orchestra, led by Lockhart since 1995, returns to the Carmel, Indiana venue Sunday, April 2, 7.p.m. for “By George! The Pops Plays Gershwin.”
The concert will feature the rarely-performed original Paul Whiteman Orchestra version of “Rhapsody in Blue” and a world-premiere reconstruction of Paul Whiteman’s jazzy arrangement of “An American in Paris.” Also included are selections from the Great American Songbook such as “The Man I Love,” ” They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
When I saw Lockhart last in 1992, he was guest conductor for the Indianapolis Symphony’s “Yuletide Celebration. At the time, Lockhart was the associate conductor of the Cincinnati Pops. I will never forget when, during the Tap Dancing Santas number, which was and still is the annual event’s showstopper, Lockhart suddenly joined the dancers to tap, demonstrating that here was a maestro that did not take himself too seriously.
Recently, the self-effacing, good-natured Lockhart and I shared a good laugh about my memory when I spoke with him by phone about the music of Gershwin and the upcoming concert.
How well do you know the Center’s artistic director, Michael Feinstein?
I have a long history with Michael. We have worked together a lot. I have probably done a dozen concerts with him over the last twenty years. In fact, he appeared with me at the Hollywood Bowl with the Boston Pops during my first American tour in 1995. That was the first time we ever worked together.
Does your passion for the American Songbook rival his?
Nobody’s passion for the American Songbook is greater than Michael’s. His knows no bounds and he has encyclopedic knowledge that the rest of us are in awe of. I am a little bit more of a generalist trained in Mahler, Dvořák, Stravinsky, Bartok and all of those people. I too love the music that Michael loves, however, and as conductor of the Boston Pops, the American Songbook repertoire is the center and at the core of our repertoire. The great thing about the Boston Pops is that over our 130 plus years, we have managed, in some ways, to influence tastes and people’s listening patterns through our music. Boston Pops is a populist, non-off putting orchestra that makes people want to hear what we have to offer. There are a lot of very familiar songs in the Gershwin program and also a couple things that I hope will make people look a little deeper.
How does it feel to be the second longest tenured conductor with the Boston Pops?
It makes me feel old. (Laughs). There have been 20 conductors of the Boston Pops but the first seventeen of them took 45 years. The last three have been for almost 90. Arthur Fiedler died during his 50th year on the podium. I don’t think I either will or want to equal that record. I am about to enter my 23rd and John Williams was here for 13 seasons so I am working on doubling John’s tenure. It’s funny to be number two and know that there is no way in hell you will be number 1 (Laughs).
What have been your major contributions during your tenure with the Boston Pops?
That’s up to other people to say. But when Fiedler died and the Pops had to replace somebody that was irreplaceable because he was so associated with the institution. They chose John Williams because his fame was already assured as a composer. He had already written “Jaws,” and “Star Wars” and those sorts of things and he wasn’t another Arthur Fiedler. When they came back to me they did not go for another Hollywood composer. The choses somebody that also came from the classical side of the coin as I did but with a broad appetite. I would say that if there is anything that makes me good for this job, it’s my passion for music that represents a wide range. I wasn’t brought up by musician parents. I was never told what music to listen to. I was a huge fan of Broadway and American Songbook stuff, but also rock n’ roll, jazz, as well as other music I wanted to study. That has served me really well and I think has allowed me to really open the wide angle lens a little bit further and really bring a lot of music under one roof.
Is this Carmel appearance part of a tour?
Yes. We love to perform concerts in other parts of the country and but the numbers don’t make sense. It is too expensive to get the orchestra out for the fees that are possible. It is the last concert of a Midwest concert tour that started on March 24. We started in Kansas City, and have been to Iowa City, Iowa, Lincoln Nebraska, Chicago, Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Van Wert, Ohio. We end in Carmel on April 2.
How did the Boston Pops become known as “America’s Orchestra?”
The Boston Pops for many years now is not just any regional brand. It has a national constituency. Everybody around the country knows that Philadelphia and Los Angeles have great orchestras but there is not that sense of ownership that fans have for ours. A lot of our recognition has to do with people, even in the middle of the heartland, seeing us on television during the 50s, 60s and 70s. It really has a national constituency and that is one of the reasons for the tour.
Tell me about the guest artists who will be joining the Orchestra for this Gershwin concert.
Michael Chertoff, the pianist, is playing “Rhapsody in Blue” and “I Got Rhythm” variations, is an old friend of the Pops. I’ve toured with him all across the country and Asia as well. He is one of the better Gershwin interpreters and he even has a strong physical resemblance to Gershwin. And the two singers, Justin Hopkins and Erica Spyres are young, vibrant, and wonderfully talented. The two of them have great chemistry together and will sing duets of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” and a medley entitled “’S Wonderful, ’S Marvelous, ’S Gershwin.” In this concert we all want to tell the story of an amazing American creative talent who was discovered by the classical world when he wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924 and by 1937 he was dead. An amazing thirteen years of creative activity.
What do you like about Gershwin’s music?
I pretty much have done most of it many, many times. But I am always struck by the animation, the sense of newness, the sense of freshness. Whenever I do this music, I think about what audiences of the time and what musicians of the time thought of it. For Gershwin to take classical forms and to inject them with this vitality of harmonies that were not performance factors of the time is simply remarkable. And the rhythms and syncopation are just amazingly fresh and new music. The great thing about the best music is that it still sounds fresh and new. I am in awe of Gershwin’s genius. Here’s a man whose serious compositional career was only 13 years long. During that time he wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” “Concerto in F,” “American in Paris” and the great American opera “Porgy and Bess.” On top of that he won a Pulitzer and pretty much invented the Hollywood musical during that relatively short time. I am still just blown away thinking about it.
What can audiences expect when attending “By George!”
First and foremost, they can expect a great concert being played on a very high level by a wonderfully virtuoso group of musicians but also, I think Boston Pops concerts are about connection. I do quite a bit of talking to, and not at the audience and try to engage them in conversation and it’s a great story. I love telling the story. I think of this concert, basically, as a two-hour narrative which tells a very interesting life story. I hope people will find it not only just a great concert but also engaging entertainment.
For tickets and information about “By George! The Pops Plays Gershwin” call the Center For the Performing Arts box office at (317) 843-3800 or visit thecenterpresents.org.