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!