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Exclusive interview: Keith Lockhart talks about the July 4 Boston Pops ‘Salute to Our Heroes’ broadcast

The upcoming Boston Pops July 4 broadcast is not all reruns. It will also feature newly created content, including the entire Pops viola section playing "Over the Rainbow" and a virtual performance of Pops Conductor Laureate John Williams' “Summon the Heroes.”

Boston — How many times have you seen Boston Pops music director Keith Lockhart conduct from the piano? Nearly once? Well, he does it all the time now — from his home — and you’ll see him do it again on July 4 when he accompanies gospel singer Renese King in a virtual performance of two songs” “God Bless America” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The upcoming Boston Pops July 4 broadcast is not all reruns. It will also feature newly created content, including the entire Pops viola section playing “Over the Rainbow” and a virtual performance of Pops Conductor Laureate John Williams’ “Summon the Heroes.” Also giving virtual performances on the 4th will be the Pops’ trumpet section playing a classic Leroy Anderson number; and Amanda Gorman, the first ever youth poet laureate of the United States of America. But yes, of course, the program will feature a star-studded cast in performances from past July 4 shows. You can see a preview of the show here.

We recently spoke with Maestro Lockhart about living under quarantine, home schooling, silver linings, the loneliness of today’s performing musicians, the Black Lives Matter movement, cultural diversity at the BSO, blind auditions, Amanda Gorman’s poetry, music making under lockdown, the need for a new Leroy Anderson, and, of course, the July 4 show.

Thanks, Keith, for taking the time today to talk with The Berkshire Edge. Before we get started, I just want to tell you that your “Conversations with Keith videos have been singularly fascinating to me.

Thank you. They were very interesting for me, too. These are all pretty much people whom I know more or less fairly well, and I learned a lot about them by getting to ask them questions we wouldn’t ordinarily do during the ebb and flow of work.

Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops at the Hatch Shell on the Charles River Esplanade, July 4, 2019. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Listening in on these conversations is like being a fly on the wall in a room where professional artists are talking shop: the kind of thing we imagine goes on backstage but we never get to see. It’s just too much fun!

I’m glad you feel that way. That’s what we hoped to do. Obviously the purpose of all these is to stay in contact with our audience and rather than just trying to do virtual performance all the time, which is kind of a pale representation of what we really do. These backstory opportunities — these “inside baseball” sorts of looks at people whom they’ve seen on stage for years — we hope would be the thing that would turn heads.

Certainly it will turn heads; there’s a real pent-up demand for this kind of content — content that, in normal times, few BSO musicians would have time to create. Meeting the musicians in their homes after seeing them onstage for years is priceless.

Yeah, I believe that, actually. Even when we’re under normal circumstances, one of the most interesting things to do with people is to peel that wall back a little bit and see who it is they see from afar. And it’s a really good opportunity, too; I mean, traditionally, the conductor is very much the face of the orchestra, and I talk to people about the orchestra and what we do a lot. But they rarely get a chance to hear anybody else on the stage talking.

You mentioned in your April 20 interview with the Boston Herald that you’ve been able to spend more time with your kids during the lockdown. What else have you seen in the last few months — good things, silver linings that you wouldn’t have seen without the pandemic?

Well, the kid thing is really special. It’s not only that I got to spend more time with them than ever before — in aggregate I think I have spent more time total in these last three months with them than I spent in their entire lives up to this point; it’s just the nature of my work that I’m gone a lot — and that time has been not just hanging out, but it’s been being part of their education, doing homeschooling sorts of things, working with them on a couple of handyman projects, bread making and stuff like that. So that’s all been wonderful.

But I have to say that really, honestly, it’s hard to find a lot of silver linings to the current cloud, at least from the position of being a performing artist. In a situation where we are pretty much banning large gatherings of people, the orchestral industry — which depends on a large group of people gathering to play for an even larger group of people — is going to be one of the first things to go and one of the last things to return. And I think, not just for me, but for all of my colleagues, it’s a very — obviously there are practical considerations. There are worries about our livelihoods. But on top of that there’s just an aching emptiness where, you know, we don’t get to do what it is that we do best. And that won’t change until we have an opportunity to work together, till we get some sort of relief from this. Between homeschooling and handyman projects, it’s certainly given me more time to reflect and I would say, coming back to it, if there’s one positive thing I’ll take away, it’s that I will never treat my job like a job again. No matter how much you love your work, there’s always times when it feels like work, and coming out of this, I will always be grateful when I have an opportunity to perform. So that, I suppose, is a small silver lining.

Of course, the silver lining for listeners is the trove of free stuff they can get online that the BSO has been posting.

Free stuff is great, but we also realize, on the back side of that, that we need to create revenue; free stuff will be wonderful only until the money runs out.

It does attract a lot of eyeballs.

I hope that’s the case. We’ll certainly see. I guess one thing is, one silver lining for all of us is that it certainly shakes up our suppositions about how we do business, and it certainly has been an opportunity for a lot of creative thinking.

Like everyone else, professional musicians want to make a positive difference in society when things get as topsy-turvy in America as they are right now. What is, or could be, the role of an orchestra in fostering a just and equal society?

Well, of course, this is among the things we’ve been thinking about. It’s obviously been on our collective conscience and individual conscience for some time now. It’s easy to look at the other people and say, “Those people are bad.” But what have we done to help fix the problem? I suppose that’s what everyone’s asking, and it goes for large public arts organizations like the BSO and the Boston Pops as well.

The Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band performs with the Boston Pops Orchestra, July 4, 2017. Photo courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra

I guess not everyone realizes that the BSO and Boston Pops hold blind auditions. How long have you been doing that?

We’ve been holding blind auditions for probably 40 years now. Fortunately — you know, it’s funny, because people — it’s one of the things that is kind of a constant source of embarrassment — that people look at the BSO, or any major orchestra, actually, and they see very few faces of people of color in the ranks, and that’s been true forever. And it continues to be true, despite the well-meaning efforts of a lot of people. And when people talk about blind auditions — this is absolutely true — it was decided by most orchestras in the mid-‘80s that they would start holding those, not because of racial prejudice but because of prejudice for their own students, for people who play the same way that they do. And honestly, at that point in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was for allowing females into the orchestra. We carpet the floor so that you can’t hear the sound of high heels. That has gone a long way, certainly in terms of the male and female distribution in orchestras, and it has changed profoundly in my time in the industry, where basically, for 35 years or so, it’s changed hugely.

My joke at the BSO is that we’re always bringing the carpenters in and re-designing the two changing rooms for the male and female members of the orchestra. And any day now, they’re pretty much going to be the same size, which, of course, is how it should be. In terms of artists of color, there are programs like Project Step, which is sponsored by the Boston Symphony, and the Sphinx Organization, that are specific to creating opportunities for playing these kinds of instruments and in communities where they are not traditionally part of what kids get exposed to. And there has been success on all of those fronts, but there just needs to be a lot more. I can tell you — and I can speak for pretty much every member of this industry — if the screen came down after an audition and the person who won was in any way increasing the diversity of the organization, we’d be overjoyed. We would be absolutely thrilled. That would be the best possible outcome. But that has to happen a lot earlier than auditions for the Boston Symphony. When you’re auditioning for the Boston Symphony, you’re already at the end of a very long winnowing process. So you need to get instruments into the hands of young people, you need to encourage them, you need to remove the financial barriers, and you need to keep that work going from the time they’re 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 to the time they’re 25. So that’s a  — there’s a long road ahead on that, but I think it’s caused everybody in this business to say, “Well, maybe we have to recommit to that.” We have to very visibly recommit to that as well.

I’d say in terms of other things that we can do — it has to do with programming, with being careful that we don’t fall into the comfortable trap of just playing the same pieces by the same people over and over again. It’s the same pieces by the same people who end up generally being dead white males. And as much as we can, we make sure that we are an avenue where voices who come from different communities — diverse voices, artists of color, women composers, those sorts of things — get to be heard. The way that music enters the repertoire or enters the mainstream — becomes popular and gets played more than once — is about visibility, being seen and allowing people to say, “Oh! I really like that!”, or conversely, “I really didn’t like that!” One has to be very careful that those opportunities are equally presented. And I think that’s one of the things we’ll be addressing as hard as we can in the future.

But doesn’t the Boston Pops already do as good a job at this as any orchestra in the world?

Well, we certainly play a wider variety of repertoire, and we play music from so many different strands of what makes great music — besides traditional — you know, great orchestral music. We play jazz, we play rock ‘n’ roll, we feature singer/songwriters, we do New Orleans musicians and zydeco and all these things where, in many cases, jazz and other fascinating popular American music forms — it’s artists of color who are largely the movers and game changers in those, and so, yes, we collaborate with a lot of black musicians, both performers and creators, and that is one of the advantages to having such a wide . . .  Our mission is to play music over a really wide variety of different sources, and that brings us to places where most orchestras don’t normally go.

Amanda Gorman, first-ever youth poet laureate of the United States, onstage with the Boston Pops Orchestra, July 4, 2019. Photo courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tell us about Amanda Gorman.

We discovered Amanda because a producer and Channel 5 (WCVB), who were one of the producers for Chronical, told us that we really needed to check this person out, because “CBS Sunday Morning” had done a piece by her at Thanksgiving time. They had presented her doing a live performance of her poem. This young lady is incredibly poised and incredibly articulate and really has a voice that you should listen to, that should be heard. We watched this Thanksgiving thing and then we got directly in touch with her — she had just rolled off of her period of time as the first ever youth poet laureate of the United States of America — and discovered somebody who is just an awfully, awfully nice person and so excited to be asked to do something like this.

We thought, “Well, what are we going to do with her?” And we kind of started throwing music around that we could do that was different, and we started talking about the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is one of the most amazing and incredible of American patriotic songs. But, honestly, we don’t do it that much in performance anymore because it’s, well, rather militaristic, and it talks about — in very specific terms — the struggle of the Civil War: “As He died to make men holy let us live to make men free.” That is the struggle we’re talking about today: true equality and not just in words on a piece of paper. And it is a battle. We’ve seen very much that it’s a battle the last few weeks in this country. And so I asked her what she thought about that piece, and she said, “I love the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ I love what it’s about. Let me see if I can do a spin on it that kind of brings it into the here and now.” And the result was “The Believer’s Hymn for the Republic,” which I still think is one of the most profound things we’ve ever presented on the Fourth of July.

What most excites you about the upcoming broadcast? It must be the Amanda Gorman piece!

That’s one of them, and the other thing I would say is we spent a lot of time thinking. Yes, we’re using material from the last several years of shows — we have a great treasure trove of material — and the result of being able to use all of them is that we have an A-list of collaborators that we could never have in any single year, and so it’s really a star-studded cast. We’re doing some from a bunch of different people’s performances. But we also thought it was important that this concert reflect the here and now, that it not just be a rerun, because so much is going on. This time is so special, in both good and bad ways, that we couldn’t just say, “This is how we did things last year.” We recorded new intros and contextualizations. But we also thought about new content, and one of those new things is “Summon the Heroes,” which we started the Pops season with.

And another thing that we are doing that I’m very proud of is we are, toward the last hour of the show — before the traditional things like “1812 Overture” and the fireworks that everyone looks forward to — we’re addressing the situation we find ourselves in now with the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd, et cetera, and I’m playing a collaborative piece with a wonderful gospel singer I’ve worked with a lot over the last 25 years, Renese King, and we’re doing a special — just the two of us — very intimate version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “God Bless America.” I hope it inspires thoughtfulness, and I hope it feels like what it was intended to be, which is a call to action.

Grammy Award-winner Rhiannon Giddens performing with the Boston Pops Orchestra, July 4, 2018. Image courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra

We really enjoy hearing you virtually accompany musicians on your piano at home. It’s a bit of a novelty.

Well, I have to say it’s been a bit of a struggle, because I really haven’t been playing a lot over the last several years. I performed in public quite a bit 15-plus years ago. But I haven’t been playing, and I’m not as young as I used to be, and my fingers are a little more arthritic than 25 years ago. But musicians have to make music, and being a conductor means nothing in the current situation because there’s nothing to conduct. So, as much as possible, you go back to your medium and try to make music by any means possible. It’s been fun doing some collaborations with artists whose art I respect a lot. So those are my special moments.

If Leroy Anderson were alive today, what kind of piece would you ask him to write for the Boston Pops?

[chuckling] Leroy Anderson’s mastery was about writing music that was wonderful diversion. You didn’t hear Leroy Anderson in his day writing pieces about the difficult questions of the day. His music is so lighthearted and so universal in its appeal and so well crafted that it did one of the things that music is supposed to do, which is take us out of ourselves and take us away from our current cares. So what I would ask him to do is what he does best. I would not ask him to write a piece about race relations in America. That just doesn’t seem like where he would have found his best niche. What I would ask him to do is write a piece that could make us all smile and maybe make us laugh, throw back our heads a little bit — it’s been a hard time for a whole lot of people to be able to smile — a piece that would make us want to get back together again with each other and experience things together, which is what social animals are supposed to do.

Who is today’s Leroy Anderson?

[chuckling] Oh, I’m not sure there is one today, which is interesting. There are a lot of optimistic and sunny artists with great perspectives on things, but the idea of light music — light classical music — is really not something we’ve paid a lot of attention to over the last few years, because it seems that our perception of classical music or “serious” music or orchestral music has gotten ever more serious as time moves on, and we have left it to other kinds of music that the Pops also plays to leave us whistling a tune and tapping our toes, and maybe it’s time for the new Leroy Anderson to stand up.

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The Boston Pops’ July 4 broadcast will air from 8 to 11 p.m. on Bloomberg Television, Bloomberg Radio, and on Boston’s WHDH-TV.


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