It goes without saying that the Holiday Pops is one of the most cherished holiday traditions in Boston. For over 40 years, “America’s Orchestra” has presented its beloved holiday concerts at Symphony Hall.
Conductor Keith Lockhart has now been at the podium for almost half of those 40 years, and under his leadership the Pops’ national recognition has soared. This year, in addition to its performances at Symphony Hall, its A Pops Holiday Party special returns to PBS stations across the country.
How far in advance do you guys begin preparing for the holiday concerts?
Pretty much since last Dec 24. These concerts have become such an important part of the calendar for the Boston Pops and, honestly, such an important part of the cultural calendar for everyone that we give a great deal of thought to what we’re putting on next year. So many people enjoy our concerts, and we get all these letters that say, “Best one ever!” Which, of course, leaves the question, “What do we do next year?” [laughs] And I think we have come up with a model for concerts that works really well and that is a kind of journey from the more spiritual and thought-provoking to the fun and the celebration of the holidays that, I think, for a lot of people kind of has become their spiritual center around this time of the year.
You’re going into your third decade with the Pops now—
Thanks for putting it that way, it sounds so much longer!
[laughs] Well, after so many years, how do you keep it fresh? There is a tradition of what people want to see at these holiday concerts, but how do you balance the introduction of new material?
That’s honestly the big question each year. How do you program for tradition? The basis of the tradition is familiarity. We come back to the holidays hoping to reach out and touch things that we’ve touched every year. But that having been said, when you do a large series of concerts that happen every year, it’s not useful to cookie cutter the concerts year in and year out. So it’s always about thinking about what can we bring back that people will say, “Wow! I’m glad they’re doing that again,” and what can we present that’s new? Each year we add new arrangements in, we look through and say, “What don’t we have, what’s a great Christmas moment or a great holiday moment that we don’t have?” This year our big classical moment on the concert is a beautiful piece called “The Adoration of the Magi” from Respighi’s Three Botticelli Pictures, which is one of my nominees for most beautiful piece ever written. We commissioned a visual essay dealing with the northern lights to accompany that with the common thread of looking to the heavens for mystic signs, if you will. We have played the piece before, but never with this visual collaboration.
One of your traditions is to have a guest narrator for “The Night Before Christmas.” Who do you have coming this season?
We never announce them before they show up because schedules change. It’s usually people who are known from the media, celebrities of various sorts. It’s a lot of fun but it doesn’t happen on every concert.
Well, I can try to make myself available.
We’ll put you on the list. The one person we can count on joining us every year is the big guy in the red suit, who has a special relationship with the Boston Pops and has for years. I don’t know how we get him to do it given how busy he is this time of year, but we’re grateful for this presence.
The Pops really is the gateway for young people to get into the world of the symphony, and I think that is such a valuable thing that you guys do.
Particularly this time of year, because it’s such a familial event that we have a lot more young people at these concerts than we have at concerts any other time during the year. And to be able to present them with this glorious sound of the live orchestra, of course, we hope that one of the things they take away from that is that this is a sound unlike anything they’ve ever heard and that it makes them hungry for more of it.
And your PBS special is back on this year!
We’re really happy to have one again this year. It’s one of the best things we do and this one has been picked up by pretty much every major-market PBS station in the country. It’s important for us; it helps maintain our national profile when we go out and tour. We can sense the difference in visibility if people aren’t seeing us on the air on a regular basis because we think of ourselves as a national brand and not just a regional brand, and it’s one of the things that keep us out there.
HOLIDAY POPS. THROUGH 12.24 AT SYMPHONY HALL, 301 MASS. AVE., BOSTON. BSO.ORG