Lenox — The Boston Pops Orchestra plays only the easiest pieces. So easy that performing with the Pops is like getting a day off with pay. The conductor also has it easy. He can just relax and leisurely drift along, waving his hands and turning a page once in awhile. Right?
Not by a long shot.
But audiences must be forgiven for making these assumptions. After all, they hear nothing but flawless performances from the Pops, concert after concert, year after year (for the last 130 years or so). And the players always look so relaxed! How hard could it be?
A lot harder than you might think. Just ask Keith Lockhart at the end of a live-to-picture performance like the one he gave of “Jaws in Concert” on June 18 at Tanglewood. The show came off without a hitch and, as usual, Mr. Lockhart made the whole enterprise look easy. But he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not. In fact, it’s devilishly difficult:
“Conducting to a film that has already been made is a really big challenge. It’s really one of the toughest things that I’ve had to do as a conductor.”
And listen to his explanation in the video below of how it’s done:
And what about the players? Is a live-to-picture performance devilishly difficult for them, as well? Not quite. But, as Boston Pops violist David Feltner explained to The Edge, everyone in the orchestra must maintain an unusually heightened state of vigilance throughout these performances. That’s because the players, on every cue, must either respond instantly (give or take one quarter of a second) or else risk taking the entire orchestra off the rails. So there’s none of the usual give-and-take between conductor and orchestra. No wiggle room. And once the film is rolling, there’s no turning back.
It’s not easy to maintain such a high level of vigilance and precision for two hours straight (although sometimes the orchestra does get an intermission). The biggest risk of all? The myriad tempo changes in most movie scores. Because there’s zero margin for error: You either keep up, or you perish.
The Edge spoke on June 18 with “Jaws in Concert” Technical Director Matt Yelton. He’s the guy who sits in front of a stack of black boxes and laptop computers in the middle of the Shed’s box seat section whence he starts, controls, and stops the entire live-to-picture operation. He conducts the conductor. We asked Mr. Yelton whether a conductor’s goof-up in a live-to-picture performance could actually result in show-ending catastrophe. Could this really happen?
Sometimes Boston Pops programs are relatively easy for players and conductors. But even then, it’s not because the music itself is easy. The most advanced musicianship tends to make everything look easy.
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The Boston Pops will present two more programs of film music this summer at Tanglewood: Film Night, on August 19 (in which BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons will participate), and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” on August 25.