The Boston Pops Orchestra is an American orchestra based in Boston, Massachusetts which specializes in playing light classical and popular music.
The price of the beer, the Boston Transcript complained, was too high - 10 cents a glass. A ticket went for a quarter. “The Programme for these Concerts,” the Boston Symphony Orchestra assured its public, “will be made up largely of light music of the best class . . .” So on Saturday evening, July 11, 1885, a large and fashionable crowd showed up at the Boston Music Hall for the first-ever Music Hall Promenade Concert. The founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Henry Lee Higginson, had proposed this new series in the hope of re-creating the ambience of summer evenings in the concert gardens in Vienna, where he had been a music student. (He also wanted to provide summer employment for the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who at that point had to search for other work six months out of the year.) Certainly the strait-laced Boston public understood that it was being offered the chance to relax in a fantasy of European pleasures - though nothing so daring as the model of a Parisian café-concert might have suggested.
In fact, the Boston Symphony Orchestra explicitly promised that the Promenade Concerts would emulate those conducted in Berlin by Benjamin Bilse. The first program, conducted by Adolf Neuendorff, included a novelty number titled An Evening with Bilse, which humorously tossed together scraps of L.v. Beethoven and Strauss, Wagner and Weber. Given that everything else on the program was European as well, the audience at the first Promenade Concert could not have imagined that it was launching a peculiarly American tradition. Although the format of most of the Boston Pops Orchestra’s concerts remains strikingly similar to the original - three sections divided by two intermissions, with the evening’s heaviest piece sandwiched in the middle - the character of much of the music has changed, as has the event’s character as a whole.
How did the change happen? In part, it came about because the audience took so readily to the series. Another reason for the increasing Americanness of Pops was the development of American music itself in the 1890s – a development that both aided the concerts and was aided by them. Pieces by composers such as Victor Herbert turned up more and more frequently on the program; so, too, did the works of the March King, John Philip Sousa, most notably his 1897 composition The Stars and Stripes Forever! By 1899, the orchestra had adopted Stars and Stripes as the regular finale for the Promenade Concerts. Finally, there was an eventual change in the leadership of the Promenade Concerts - which in 1900 officially became known as the Pops. The early conductors were of European background, beginning with Adolf Neuendorff, and also including Timothée Adamowski, Max Zach, and Gustav Strube.
This European line came to an end with the tenure of the Italian composer and pianist Alfred Casella in 1927-1929. Although he programmed popular pieces such as Gershwin’s brand-new An American in Paris, he also performed entire symphonies by L.v. Beethoven, and even works by contemporary avant-garde composers such as Arthur Honegger. The public complained loudly enough that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s management declined to renew Casella’s contract. Instead, the Boston Symphony Orchestra again turned to one of its own, a 35-year-old violist who had been with the orchestra since 1915. His name was Arthur Fiedler, and he would not only lead the Boston Pops for the next 50 years, but would complete its transformation. By the time of his death in 1979, the Boston Pops would be a national institution in America, a musical ambassador abroad, and the most-recorded orchestra in the world.
Born in Boston and trained in Germany, Arthur Fiedler first led the Pops in Symphony Hall as a replacement during the 1926 season, following the resignation of conductor Agide Jacchia. By then, Arthur Fiedler already had demonstrated his ambition by forming the Fiedler Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra composed of Boston Symphony Orchestra members. After the success of his first Pops concert, Arthur Fiedler asked to be named the permanent conductor - an appointment that instead went to Alfred Casella. Undaunted, Arthur Fiedler decided to organize and conduct his own five-week series of popular concerts. He would even go the Boston Symphony Orchestra one better by performing the concerts outdoors and for free. On July 4, 1929, Arthur Fiedler inaugurated a series that continues to this day, now under the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s auspices: the Esplanade Concerts, which are held on the east bank of the Charles River. The response was ecstatic. After Casella’s departure, the Boston Symphony Orchestra offered Arthur Fiedler a three-year contract, to begin with the 1930 Pops season. For the first time in their 45-year history, the concerts would be led by an American-born conductor.
In addition to moving the Boston Pops repertoire beyond its origins in European light classical music, Arthur Fiedler also moved the orchestra into another field of popular culture: recordings. In a three-day marathon, from July 1 through July 3, 1935, Arthur Fiedler led the Boston Pops in its first recordings, for the RCA Victor label. Among the 40 compositions recorded on those days was a tune by Jacob Gade, “Jalousie,” which Arthur Fiedler had recently plucked out of a sheet-music bin for 15 cents. “Jalousie” became the first Victor record - and also the first orchestral record – to sell more than a million copies. In one stroke, Arthur Fiedler had reached an unprecedentedly large audience while literally establishing an identity for his ensemble. Until those recording sessions, the musicians had been known simply as “the orchestra of the Pops concerts.” It was not until RCA Victor needed a name for the label that a “Boston Pops Orchestra” was born.
Over the ensuing years, Arthur Fiedler maintained the fame of the Boston Pops Orchestra by showcasing the work of young American composers and arrangers, by featuring young American soloists, and by making astute use of the media. Regular local radio broadcasts of the Boston Pops concerts began in 1956; Boston Pops radio broadcasts were nationally syndicated each week from 1962 to 1992. The national public television program Evening at Pops was launched in 1970, as a joint production of WGBH-TV in Boston and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Evening at Pops kept the conductor and his ensemble before an immense worldwide audience. The Pops’ special bicentennial program on the Esplanade on July 4, 1976, drew more than 400,000 people.
After Arthur Fiedler’s death on July 10, 1979, his longtime associate conductor, Harry Ellis Dickson (1908-2003), took over the interim leadership of the orchestra, along with a number of guest conductors. Meanwhile, the management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra undertook the seemingly impossible task of finding a successor to Arthur Fiedler.
By the time John Williams was appointed condof the Boston Pops Orchestra in January 1980, he was the best-known composer for film in the world. Williams also had an enviable classical training, he had worked as a jazz pianist in New York, and he had arranged albums for several popular artists. At the time of his appointment, he had not yet had much public experience as a conductor, but he brought to the podium the background, talent, and celebrity to succeed at a daunting assignment.
Williams both broadened and updated the Boston Pops repertoire, writing and commissioning many new compositions while also introducing arrangements of recent pieces of popular music - such as film scores - that would be suitable for orchestral performance. He maintained the popularity of the Evening at Pops broadcasts; he traveled extensively with the Boston Pops; and he led a series of best-selling recordings for the Philips and Sony Classical labels.
At Christmas 1991, John Williams announced that he would step down as conductor of the Boston Pops at the end of 1993, at which time he assumed the title of Laureate Conductor. He also agreed to serve as Music Adviser while the Boston Symphony Orchestra again took on a seemingly impossible task - finding someone to succeed him. The appointment as twentieth conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra - and only the third conductor since Arthur Fiedler became Conductor in 1930 - fell to Keith Lockhart. Born in 1959, he was 35 years old when the choice was made - the same age Arthur Fiedler had been at the time of his appointment.
Having led more than 1,200 Boston Pops concerts, Keith Lockhart is now in his sixteenth season as Boston Pops Conductor. He has made 67 television shows, led 33 national and four overseas tours with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, and recorded eleven albums. His 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, now numbering four: Sleigh Ride, America, Oscar & Tony, and The Red Sox Album. He also led the Pops for Chris Botti’s “In Boston” CD and DVD, which received multiple Grammy nominations earlier this year.
Highlights of the 2010 season, marking the 125th anniversary of the Boston Pops, include an Opening Night celebration featuring trumpet legend Doc Severinsen, who holds the distinction of having performed under the batons of Arthur Fiedler, Williams, and Lockhart, and the world premiere of “The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers” by Peter Boyer and Lynn Ahrens. Other guests joining Keith Lockhart and the Pops include Broadway superstar Idina Menzel, vocalist Maureen McGovern, jazz legend Dave Brubeck, and folk music icon Arlo Guthrie. John Williams returns to the Symphony Hall podium with “Hooray for Hollywood,” showcasing memorable moments in film music past and present. There will be tributes to Ray Charles, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington, and Turner Classic Movies film expert Robert Osbourne hosts a Pops salute to the unforgettable movie musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein.