“The Boston Pops Orchestra performs the best music of the past and present, appealing to the widest possible audience with a broad spectrum of styles, from jazz to pop, indie rock to big band, film music to the great American songbook, and Broadway to classical, making it the perfect orchestra for people who don’t know they like orchestras!”
Affectionately known as “America’s Orchestra,” the Boston Pops is the most recorded and arguably the most beloved orchestra in the country, beginning with the establishment of the modern-era Pops by Arthur Fiedler and continuing through the innovations introduced by John Williams and the new-millennium Pops spearheaded by Keith Lockhart. In 2010, with the 125th anniversary season, the Boston Pops reached a landmark moment in a remarkable history that began with its founding in 1885. Fours years earlier, in 1881, Civil War veteran Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra, calling its establishment “the dream of my life.” From the start he intended to present, in the warmer months, concerts of light classics and the popular music of the day. From a practical perspective, Higginson realized that these “lighter” performances would provide year-round employment for his musicians. The “Promenade Concerts,” as they were originally called, were soon informally known as “Popular Concerts,” which eventually became shortened to “Pops,” the name officially adopted in 1900. The following year the orchestra performed for the first time in its new home, Symphony Hall. Not only is this performance space acoustically outstanding, it was also designed, at Higginson’s insistence, so that the rows of seats for Boston Symphony concerts could be replaced by tables and chairs for Pops concerts.
Some people may not realize that there were seventeen Pops conductors, beginning with the German Adolf Neuendorff, who preceded Arthur Fiedler, the first American-born musician to lead the orchestra. In his nearly 50-year tenure as Pops Conductor (1930-1979), Arthur Fiedler established the Boston Pops as a national icon. He moved the Pops beyond its origins in light-classical music into the world of pop culture, showcasing the popular artists of the day as well as the work of young American composers and arrangers. Mr. Fiedler organized the first free outdoor orchestral concerts on the Charles River Esplanade that led to Boston’s now-famous Fourth of July concert, established the Pops as the most recorded orchestra in history-including the best-seller “Jalousie”-and introduced the Evening at Pops television series, bringing the orchestra into the living rooms of countless Americans.
When John Williams (1980-1993) succeeded Arthur Fiedler, he was the most highly acclaimed composer in Hollywood, and today, with 49 Academy Award nominations, he is the most-nominated living person in Academy history. With the Pops, Mr. Williams continued the orchestra’s prolific recording tradition with a series of best-selling albums for the Philips and Sony Classical labels, broadened and updated the Pops repertoire-commissioning new compositions and introducing new arrangements of Boston Pops classics- and entertained audiences with live orchestral accompaniment to film clips of memorable movie scenes, many of which featured iconic music from his own film scores. He traveled extensively with the Pops both nationally and internationally, leading the Pops on its first tours to Japan. Mr. Williams also brought a bit of Hollywood to the Pops stage, with special appearances by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Frank Langella, not to mention Darth Vader, R2D2, and C3PO.
Having led more than 1,500 Boston Pops concerts, Keith Lockhart (1995-present) is now in his nineteenth season as Boston Pops Conductor. In response to the ever-diversifying trends in music, Keith Lockhart has taken the Pops in new directions, creating programs that reach out to a broader and younger audience by presenting artists-both established performers and rising stars-from virtually every corner of the entertainment world, all the while maintaining the Pops’ appeal to its core audience. He has made 74 television shows, led 37 national and four overseas tours with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, and recorded eleven albums. Mr. Lockhart’s tenure has been marked by a dramatic increase in touring, the orchestra’s first Grammy nominations, the first major network national broadcast (on CBS Television) of the Fourth-of-July spectacular from the Esplanade, and the release of the Boston Pops’ first self-produced and self-distributed recordings. He has also led the Boston Pops at several high profile sports events, including the pre-game show of NFL’s Super Bowl XXXVI with the New England Patriots, the national anthem for the 2008 NBA Finals with the Boston Celtics, and the opening game of MLB’s 2007 World Series, at Fenway Park with the Boston Red Sox.
The focus of the 128th Boston Pops Spring season was music for the movies, ranging from Hollywood’s Golden Age to today’s blockbusters. “Fantasia in Concert” drew upon selections featured in the original groundbreaking 1940 Disney feature and in Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., were showcased in “Pixar in Concert.” Pops Laureate Conductor John Williams returned for “Film Night,” leading music from his own Oscar-nominated score to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. For the Pops’ tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch, vocalists Donna McKechnie, Jodi Benson, and Doug LaBrecque performed some of Mr. Hamlisch’s most memorable tunes from both stage and screen. Matthew Morrison (Glee) and Megan Hilty (Smash)-Broadway performers who are also making their mark in television series-brought their considerable talents to the Symphony Hall stage. Broadway star and Seinfeld regular Jason Alexander returned as special guest for the annual “Presidents at Pops” concert. Another television hit, Mad Men, was the inspiration for an early-’60s-themed program. Patrons at these concerts were encouraged to dress in period fashions, and fans submitted family photos from that era for inclusion in a Pops collage. As in every season, the Pops programs explored the remarkable richness and variety to be found in American music. Returning guest conductor Charles Floyd and the Boston Pops Gospel Choir joined forces with Pastor Wintley Phipps for another rousing “Gospel Night.” The sounds of country music bookended the season: Opening Night marked the return to the Pops stage of superstar Vince Gill and, to close the season, the Music City Hitmakers (Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Gordie Sampson) saluted our troops with the debut of a new song, “Free” written especially for these performances. “Free” was again performed on the 40th Anniversary of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on July 4th on the Charles River Esplanade.
Pops Fun in the Summertime
esplanade—“a level open stretch of paved or grassy ground, especially one designed for walking or driving along a shore.”
More than seventy years ago, before Arthur Fiedler became Conductor of the Boston Pops, he was struck with an idea that was to transform the orchestra’s relationship to the City of Boston. He believed that if great literature was available for free in public libraries, and masterpieces of art could be viewed for a modest fee in museums, then great symphonic music should be accessible to the masses on a similar basis. Fiedler, who was at the time a violist in the Boston Symphony as well as a conductor of his own ensemble, set about raising funds to bring his idea to fruition. After two years, on July 4, 1929, the first free Esplanade Concert was performed at the specially constructed acoustic shell along the banks of the Charles River. The orchestra was composed of roughly half the musicians of the Boston Symphony. That first season of free concerts, which attracted more than 208,000 people, was such a resounding confirmation of Fiedler’s vision that the Boston Symphony management was swayed to sign Fiedler to a three-year conducting contract, which was only the beginning of five decades of leading the Pops, until his death in 1979. The high point of Fiedler’s career was probably the July Fourth concert in 1976. The special bicentennial event attracted more than 400,000 people and made the “Guinness Book of World Records” for the largest audience in the history of orchestral concerts (a record since broken with the 1998 attendance of 500,000+). In honor of Fiedler’s profound influence, the Boston Pops dedicates one Esplanade concert each season to him. The Esplanade season today encompasses roughly one week’s worth of concerts featuring diverse programming that ranges from classical and opera favorites to gospel music and Broadway showstoppers. The highlight of each season remains the festive Fourth of July concert, which is now telecast live nationwide and attracts nearly a half-million people each year. Recent guest artists have included the Pointer Sisters, Arturo Sandoval, Roberta Flack, Don McLean, Mel Tormé, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Trisha Yearwood, to name just a few. The celebration creates so much excitement that fans stake claims to the best spots on the Esplanade lawn starting at 6 a.m., when the grounds open. Grass quickly disappears beneath blankets, chairs, picnic baskets, and outstretched bodies, and the Charles River Basin is crammed with all manner of boats and floats. The atmosphere is one of communal good cheer. As the sun sets, the anticipation rises to fever pitch until that magic moment when the conductor mounts the podium and the music begins. With Tchaikovsky’s monumental 1812 Overture (complete with cannons and church bells) as the finale and the enduring Stars and Stripes Forever as the encore cueing a fireworks display that only gets more spectacular each year, it’s no wonder Bostonians consider the Boston Pops Fourth of July the grandest Independence Day celebration in the land!
Watch here as David Mugar explains how Boston’s 4th of July was created!