Boston Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart Believes in Emotionally Compelling Music

July 7, 2009
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Interview with Maestro Keith Lockhart


Keith Lockhart is one of the finest conductors of our generation.

Fifteen years ago, Keith Lockhart became the 20th conductor of the Boston Pops. Boston welcomed him with open arms and warm hearts and reveled in his celebrity status. It seemed that not a day went by without hearing about the handsome, affectuous and single new conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Hearts around Boston broke in unison when Lockhart lost his single status, but it was around that time it seems when things calmed and the respected conductor Keith Lockhart became the revered Maestro Lockhart.

I remember my first Boston Pops concert and seeing the Maestro on stage.  I immediately fell in love with his energy!  It was exhilarating to watch him conduct the orchestra.  He spoke to the audience, he had a great smile, he laughed, he educated us, and he showed us all how much fun it was to spend an evening at Boston’s Symphony Hall!

Fifteen years later, Keith Lockhart has lost neither his enthusiasm nor his sparkle, and it is as enjoyable to watch him today as it was when I first saw him so many years ago.

One of the things I love about his style of conducting is that it makes sense!  I can follow along with him as he counts it out, one and two and three and four!  I don’t have to guess which body movement belongs to which bar of music.  If he points to the tuba, the tuba plays.  If he raises his arms wide, the orchestra gets loud! Classical music neophytes don’t sit with their eyes glazed over, wondering how the conductor connects with the musicians. I’ve watched plenty of conductors with their own style, and I sit there confused.  But with Keith Lockhart, it all makes sense!

One of Keith Lockhart’s great strengths is his ability to connect with an audience.  Through his passion, enthusiasm and charisma, he engages the audience throughout the entire performance.  He earns and gains our trust, and we leave feeling like we know the Maestro and can’t wait for whatever he brings next!

His tenure with the Boston Pops has taken him around the world.  With the Pops he has recorded a dozen albums, has conducted approximately 1,300 concerts, and he has been involved with more than 60 television shows.

For fifteen years, Keith Lockhart has conducted the Boston Pops, and for the past 11 years has concurrently served as the Music Director for the Utah Symphony.  Keith Lockhart has a full career and he has been blessed with being able to work with the finest musicians in the world. [Keith Lockhart bio]

One of the highlights of the Boston Pops concert season is the 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular.  There are two nights of concerts, with the first night a dress rehearsal for the big celebration on the 4th.  I had the privilege to interview Maestro Lockhart on July 4th, prior to the evening’s nationally-televised concert.  We spoke briefly about the holiday, and then he graciously answered questions ranging from his own piano performances to his belief that music exists to be emotionally compelling!

Interview with Keith Lockhart – July 4, 2009

Betsy: Maestro, I’d like to thank you for the interview. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you and it’s an honor and a privilege to be given this opportunity. Thank you so much.

Maestro Lockhart: I hear you did a nice piece about the Buzz Aldrin concert that we did last month. [Pops/Aldrin article]

Betsy: Thank you! I really loved that performance. It was quite unexpected, and as luck would have it, I got to sit in the front row! Everything came together so perfectly; the “planets” aligned and I couldn’t help but write about it. It was marvelous.

Maestro Lockhart: That’s great! Thank you so much!

Betsy: I have, I think, a week’s worth of questions I could ask you, but it turns out that you answer many of them on a regular basis on! So today I’m tasked with trying to find the best questions I can ask, and fit them into this quick 10-minute interview.

Keith_Lockhart_Boston_PopsI’d like to start by asking, how do you think last night went?

Maestro Lockhart: Well, there is a reason we have rehearsals. It’s funny, because the last couple of years the rehearsals have gone so smoothly that you get lulled into a false sense of security. But I think people really enjoyed it.

We have a number of things that we need to correct, but that’s how you see them, by getting a chance to do a dry run. It would be very ill advised to try to do a show this big, with this many moving parts, without some sort of a dry run since it’s live television. [Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular 2009]

I’m glad that we did it, but it was a harder night than I had hoped it would be.

Betsy: For the audience, from our perspective, it was great! We don’t mind the glitches because we’re overjoyed to see it and to experience it all. But I’m sure that from your perspective, those types of things can be tough.

Maestro Lockhart: We look at it from a different perspective because that is what we were supposed to do.

Betsy: Well, it was wonderful evening, and the weather turned out to be perfect – finally, no rain! And thank you so much for doing the 1812! You had said that you wouldn’t be doing the Overture, so it was a wonderful surprise.

Maestro Lockhart: A couple of years ago we started doing the 1812 in the preview show, but in the past years we haven’t done it because of time restrictions on the rehearsal. But TV wanted it and they wanted the chance to get it right a second time, so we put it back in. We got everything except the fireworks!

Betsy: If you weren’t conducting the Pops for the 4th, where would you like to be?

Maestro Lockhart: Oh, I don’t know. I have worked every 4th of July probably since 1988. So at this point, I have no idea what people do for the 4th. I think that on a nice day I would be on a nice beach somewhere with a summer drink and sandals on. I probably would not want to join 500,000 people to hear a concert. [laughs]


Lockhart Betsy: You’ve been with the Boston Pops now for 15 years. It’s a tremendous milestone. Congratulations! I remember when you came to Boston and you were the talk of the town!

Can you sum up the last 15 years for me?  What have been some of the greatest moments for you these past years? What have you been most proud of, and where have you experienced your greatest growth?

Maestro Lockhart: I think with the Pops it’s such an ongoing story. There are certainly moments that stand out with the Pops. Most of them are just the accumulation of work that we’ve done together. I’ve done, I think 1,200 or 1,300 concerts with the organization. I’ve been to Japan and Korea with the Pops, and I think to maybe 34 or 35 states.

All that takes such a huge amount of time and my plate has been so full. Things like the 4th of July concerts are all wonderful and spectacular. But certainly some of the TV work we’ve done, and the Super Bowl appearance, those are all very memorable.

In terms of growth, I think that actually my greatest growth has been personal rather than professional. When I came to Boston, I was totally unprepared for not only the amount of work that I was going to take on — not just here, but elsewhere over the next couple of years — but I was also unprepared for the amount of pressure and scrutiny the position brings with it.

I think the hardest part was figuring out how to have a life in that context, how to enjoy my life and how to manage the private versus the public parts of my life. And I think I’ve learned a lot about that. It hasn’t always been easy. But I think at the end of the day, life feels much easier and much more pleasant now than it did at the beginning of my tenure, even with all the great work that I still got to do.

Betsy: You earned your music degree in piano performance. Do you still perform?

Maestro Lockhart: I have not played in public for a couple of years now, so, yes, kind of. It’s one of those things that if you don’t have sufficient time to practice you just stop playing. And it’s a vicious cycle because when you start playing again you hate yourself because you don’t play well.

But one of my New Year’s resolutions this year was that I was going to dust it off, because conductors are wise to continue to make music themselves. Otherwise you become one of those people who doesn’t do it themselves, but just tells other people how to do it.

Betsy: So you don’t much play for leisure?

Maestro Lockhart: No, I hardly ever play for leisure. I hardly ever have any leisure! And the last thing I want to do when I have any leisure time is do music.


Betsy: At what point did you know you wanted to be a conductor?

Maestro Lockhart: Oh late in undergraduate school. It was not the kind of thing where I was 8 and wanted to conduct. It was probably when I was around 20 or so.

My music teachers said that I seemed to have a skill set that might be really good for conducting and asked if I’d ever thought about it. I told them that I hadn’t seriously considered it. But then I got to thinking about it seriously and I took some baby steps, and they worked. That was 30 years ago, next year.

Betsy: I think we are all the better for it. You’re a wonderful conductor and so charismatic. I think you bring so much to the world of music and to the public that you don’t see in a lot of conductors. Your personality, you connect with the people.

Maestro Lockhart: It’s really important, in this particular job, because the Boston Pops is all about connecting with people and audiences, and a lot of audiences who are not real classical music fans. So it’s important to be someone they can relate to.

Betsy: Did you ever think you would be conducting one of the most beloved institutions in the world?

Maestro Lockhart: Nope! It never entered my mind! The job had only been held by one other person since Arthur Fiedler’s 50-year tenure beginning in 1930. It would have been a hard job to set your sights on. [John Williams became Conductor in 1980.]


Betsy: What does being the conductor of the Boston Pops mean to you?

Maestro Lockhart: It means that I’m living my dream. It means that I have the opportunity to do what it is that I truly love and as we say in this business, you look around and say, “I actually get paid to do this… this is great!”

You don’t go into classical music for fame or wealth or any of those things. You go into it because it’s what you feel you really have to do. To have gotten to make so much great music with such a great orchestra for so many people, I couldn’t be luckier.

Betsy: I am new to the classical music world. My grandmother played Arthur Fiedler recordings when I was little. But she never passed down her love of classical music to me. And when my parents would listen to classical, I always wanted to hear something ‘else’.

Today, I am like a classical music sponge and I’m trying to soak up all I can. And I owe the inspiration for the love of the music to a very good friend of mine with whom you previously worked in Salt Lake City. I don’t know if you remember him, but his name is Jed Moss and he is a pianist there.

Maestro Lockhart: Yes, I do know him. How do you know Jed?

Betsy: Jed and I have been close friends for about three years.

Maestro Lockhart: Well I had a wonderful ride in Utah. I just wrapped up 11 years with the Utah Symphony as the Music Director in Salt Lake. It’s a great community for music and they have a wonderful orchestra.

Betsy: I read also that as the Emeritus Music Director of the Symphony, you’ll be going back a few times each year.

Maestro Lockhart: Yes, that’s the best part of the job. You get all the fun and not all of the work!


Betsy: Over the past three years, Jed has opened up so much to me classically, and he has really been my musical guide. He talks to me like I understand everything that he’s saying, which I don’t…

Maestro Lockhart: But you nod appreciatively right, that’s what counts! [laughs]

Betsy: What I do is write down things down and go look them up after our conversation! Through Jed’s recordings, he has introduced me to such a vast range of composers and styles. I have Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach, but then there are pieces from artists like Jeff Manookian that, to me, are kind of crazy and ‘unappealing to my ears’.  But I can’t help but respect them and listen to them so that I can learn to appreciate the style and period.

Maestro, you’ve been able to mix your styles with your audiences well, but I imagine that some audiences are quite stubborn, and tried and true, and want their more traditional composers and pieces. But in cities like Boston, you probably find audiences that are receptive to more contemporary pieces.

So I am wondering, as a conductor and music director, how do you decide where and when it’s safe to bring a more contemporary piece to an audience?

Keith_LockhartMaestro Lockhart: Well I think audiences can be made to be receptive in all sorts of situations. There are audiences that don’t know what it is that they would enjoy. They react based on a partial knowledge of a situation and say, “well, I know that I like that person because I’ve heard of them before”.

So my job is to always give them something you know they should hear, not like eating their spinach, but getting them to do it and getting them to trust you and then planning things so that they say, “Oh, I never heard of that before. That was pretty exciting.”

There is always a balance, whether you’re conducting the Boston Pops or the most serious symphonic organization in the world. It’s a balance between entertainment and education. You always have to balance those two elements or you won’t have an audience where people have the entertainment side of the coin. And you won’t be doing your job as a musician if you don’t open their ears and their eyes to the musical world around them.

Betsy: With Contemporary composers that write maybe more avant-garde pieces, where do you see them fitting in today as well as in the future?

Maestro Lockhart: Well, for one thing, there are a whole lot of composers whose works that I don’t do, including Contemporary; because if I can’t find a reason to love a piece of music, I’m not going to force it on someone else.

I don’t think music exists to be intellectually interesting. I think music exists to be emotionally compelling.

So in a Contemporary scene, there are, well, there really isn’t avant-garde to speak of right now. I think composers by and large turned back and are realizing that it’s their job to connect with an audience, not just to shock or push away an audience.

I’m a big fan of that approach, because I don’t see the point in playing music that leaves people having a negative feeling about what music is for.

Betsy: Thank you so much for speaking with me!

Maestro Lockhart: You’re very welcome.

***I’d like to thank the Boston Pops, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the BSO staff for their generosity and for their dedication to bringing the finest music and musicians to Boston.  I’d especially like to thank Maestro Keith Lockhart for all that he gives, including making time on the 4th of July to speak with me!***