While the Boston Pops Orchestra is known for symphonic renditions of popular contemporary hits, in the spring of its 132nd season, the group pays tribute to a historic American composer with By George! The Boston Pops Plays Gershwin, led by conductor Keith Lockhart. The show arrives at the Palladium in Carmel on April 2 as part of a nine-stop tour around the Midwest. Audiences can expect famous numbers, medleys, and guest vocalists as the orchestra plays iconic music from the Jazz Age.
Lockhart, who succeeded John Williams in 1995, is currently the longest-standing conductor for the Boston Pops. Throughout his tenure, the group has expanded its touring schedule, released its first self-produced recordings, and received three Grammy Awards for Best Orchestral Performance. In this interview with IM, Lockhart reveals his admiration for Gershwin—and the challenges of traveling with an 82-member orchestra.
How did the orchestra decide on Gershwin?
Well, the Boston Pops dub ourselves as “America’s Orchestra,” and the center part of our repertoire is great music written by American composers, and Gershwin is big. What we were trying to do with this program was something different than what we’ve done with the last 40 or so tours I’ve done over the last 20 years with the group, which was to tell an individual story. We wanted to tell the very American story, the rags-to-riches, immigrant story, and Gershwin was perfect for that. In 37 years, the man really created American music at the beginning of the 20th century. This is one that allows us to explore one composer in depth.
What’s it like touring with such a large group of people?
It’s sort of like a military operation, moving this amount of people across the country in short order. It’s a lot of bus travel, especially in the Midwest, where things are spaced a little bit farther apart.
Was the medley ’S Wonderful, ’S Marvelous, ’S Gershwin composed specifically for this event?
That was not composed specifically for this concert, though it was composed specifically for the Boston Pops. Basically, in this show, the orchestra is configured similarly to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra of 1924, the orchestra that performed “Rhapsody in Blue” with Gershwin for the first time. What we’ve done is create a concert that all fits around the music as Gershwin would likely have heard it. Not in the huge orchestral context, but in a tight, jazzier context. We’re doing the 1924 original “Rhapsody in Blue” as Gershwin originally composed it. We are also doing a world premiere of a version of “American in Paris,” which has been reconstructed to be as Whiteman would have performed it.
How were the tour stops determined?
We work with tour management to book these things, but basically management goes to the venues, and then they make a list of places we can get to. We’ve played Indianapolis, and we have also played the Carmel theater before, and it’s an extraordinary venue. We’re also playing in places that I don’t believe we’ve ever played before, like Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s exciting for us, because the Boston Pops has a national profile, and it’s nice to be able to connect with those audiences, some of them for the first time.
Do you see the notoriety of the Pops reflected in the demographics of the audiences?
We try very hard to be diverse. That’s a big challenge in the performing arts in general these days. With the Boston Pops, we’ve always positioned ourselves as an orchestra for people who don’t know they like orchestras, and not just for classical-music audiences. For 130 years, I think the Boston Pops have been an outreach arm of the classical-music business. As a result, I think we find more diversity in our audiences than a normal orchestral ensemble would.
What songs in the set list do you consider to be pinnacle Gershwin numbers?
When you look at Gershwin’s career, he was already an established hit on Broadway in his early 20s. When he was 25, “Rhapsody in Blue” premiered and made him a phenomenon on the concert scene, as well. Between that time and his death was less than 13 years, and during that time he wrote what I would call the great American piano concerto, which could either be “Rhapsody in Blue” or “Concerto in F.” He wrote the great American opera with Porgy and Bess, and he did all that while continuing to write Broadway musicals, one of which became the first Broadway musical to win the Pulitzer Prize. That’s just an amazing story, that so much creativity poured out of one person in such a concentrated amount of time. In this program, we play “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” so I think the things that stand out for me are the songs that show this was an extremely talented human being who created a legacy in a very concentrated amount of time.