Boston Pops Orchestra

The word “light” can be pejorative when spoken with a certain inflection, such as when someone rolls their eyes as they say “light” beer or “light” cigarettes or when Elvis Costello mockingly referred to Van Halen as “Led Zeppelin light” on the Joan Rivers Show in the early 90s. But the Boston Pops Orchestra’s utterly spectacular presentations of “light classical” are nothing to sneer at, even for air-guitar rockers who prefer Led Zeppelin and/or Van Halen turned up to 11.

Founded in 1885 as an offshoot of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), which began four years before, the Boston Pops – “the Pops” to locals – features BSO musicians primarily, but not usually the orchestra’s first-chair players. The orchestra performs two programs of “light classical” and popular music at the home they share with the BSO, Symphony Hall, one in the spring and another during the year-end holiday season, and for their concerts the venue’s floor area is arranged into café-style seating per BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson’s objective to create “the ambiance of summer evenings in Viennese concert gardens” for the Pops’ audiences.

In addition to those performances, since 1930 the Pops has played a Fourth of July concert at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Esplanade which includes patriotic standards like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” at the finale of which a gigantic American flag is unfurled to an audience of up to 500,000. The annual performance is one of Boston’s signature events. 

The Pops’ origin story is both public-minded and practical. Shortly after founding the BSO in 1881, Henry Lee Higginson – a businessman, philanthropist, Civil War veteran and trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music who grew up in Boston – wrote that he wanted to present “concerts of a lighter kind of music.” His more pecuniary purpose was to maintain BSO musicians by providing them summer employment since at the time – over 50 years before Tanglewood became the BSO’s summer home – they had to find other work for six months of the year.

The Pops’ first concert was on July 11, 1885, conducted by German-born concert pianist Adolf Neuendorff. Originally called the “Promenade Concerts,” they became known to locals as the “Popular Concerts,” then simply the “Pops,” which the orchestra officially adopted in 1900. From the outset, Pops performances featured a mix of classical scores, musical-theatre hits and the occasional novelty number, and its 21st-Century programs are almost identical to the original ones in terms of format.

In 1930, violist Arthur Fiedler began his 49-year tenure as the orchestra’s first American-born conductor. A Boston native who shared his alma mater, Boston Latin School, with Lawrence native Leonard Bernstein, Fiedler worked tirelessly to popularize both classical music and the Pops itself across demographics through extensive recordings – the Pops has sold more albums than any orchestra in the world – and frequent radio and television broadcasts, becoming a musical icon in New England and around the world. 

One of Fiedler’s most lasting legacies is the series of free concerts he initiated at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, a public park along the Charles River. Contrary to popular belief, Fiedler began these performances six years before becoming the Pops’ conductor when, in 1924, he formed the Boston Sinfonietta, a chamber-music orchestra comprised of BSO members that performed at the Hatch Shell in the summer. That group played at the first Fourth of July event in 1929 – a year before Fiedler became the Pops’ principal conductor – and has continued annually at the venue since, with the exception of 2021 when it was held at Tanglewood. In 1953, the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge was built near the Hatch Shell commemorating the 25th anniversary of the free outdoor performances. 

In 1973, Fiedler established another annual tradition, Christmas concerts at Symphony Hall, known as “Holiday Pops.” The program features about 40 performances throughout December and, since the 1990s, a New Year’s Eve concert by the Boston Pops Swing Orchestra. Since 2014, the orchestra has been performing at showings of Christmas movies during Holiday Pops; the first one featured was Home Alone, for which the Pops’ Laureate Conductor John Williams wrote the score.

Fiedler’s other lasting legacies are in recording and television. Under his direction, the sales revenue from Pops’ recordings, including albums, singles and cassettes, exceeded $50 million. The orchestra’s debut album was made in 1935 on the RCA Victor label, followed by its first high-fi recording in 1947, which was re-recorded in stereo in 1954. 

As for television, Fiedler introduced entire generations to classical music beginning in 1970 when, in association with PBS station WGBH-TV in Boston, he developed “Evening at Pops,” recorded during the regular season at Symphony Hall and broadcast weekly. The series continued until 2004 when the BSO decided to stop funding the almost $1 million/episode project.

In 1979, following Fiedler’s death in July that year, celebrated film composer John Williams was appointed as the Pops’ principal conductor. During his 16-year tenure, he spearheaded the annual “Pops-on-the-Heights” concerts at Boston College while adding his film scores – including those from Star Wars and all four Indiana Jones movies – to the orchestra’s repertoire and released a number of top-selling albums. In 1992, he conducted an extraordinary performance featuring Broadway star John Raitt and his daughter, Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. Currently, Williams is the Pops’ laureate conductor.

In 1995, Keith Lockhart became principal Pops conductor and he remains in the role today. Following Fiedler’s lead, he’s made frequent tours, media appearances, and recordings the foundations of his tenure, leading the Pops on nearly 50 national and international tours, making over 100 television appearances, conducting the Pops at high-profile athletic events and recording 12 albums. Under Lockhart’s direction, the Pops received its first Grammy nominations, held the first national broadcast of its Fourth of July concert, and released its first self-produced, self-distributed recordings. Lockhart initiated New Year’s Eve concerts during Holiday Pops and he’s invited a variety of pop-music acts to perform during the regular season including ‘Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann and Boston-based alt-rock group Guster.

In the 2000s, Lockhart launched two programs to support new talent. In 2004, he started an American Idol-style competition called POPSearch that offers a $5,000 cash prize, a performance with the orchestra at its Fourth of July concert and a place in the orchestra on one of its national tours. Over 7,500 contestants have entered the most recent competitions, submitting YouTube clips on which anybody can vote after registering on the Pops’ website. Then, in 2008, he announced the “Boston Pops High School Sing-Off – A Best of Broadway Challenge,” for which Massachusetts high school students submit audition videos of musical-theater vocal works and the winner performs at the Fourth of July concert.

Lockhart says the orchestra’s mission is “to perform the best music of the past and present, appeal to the widest possible audience with a broad spectrum of styles – from jazz to pop, indie rock to big band, film to the great American songbook, and Broadway to classical – and make it the perfect orchestra for people who don’t know they like orchestras.”

And there ain’t nothin’ “light” about the scope of that, is there?

(by D.S. Monahan – April 2022)

Published on December 28, 2012