BOSTON — A friendly voice pipes up on the other end of the phone in Cincinnati. It's a voice that sounds as if its owner is affable, outgoing, and a bit rueful about being suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
Keith Lockhart, associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was recently chosen to head the 110yearold Boston Pops, and now everybody wants a piece of him: columnists (''I spent more time in the gossip columns than in the music pages,'' he says, halfkidding), interviewers (''To say I've done 30 interviews is a conservative estimate''), and his new employers and supporting staff, down to the caterers.
It's a tough assignment for the 30something conductor. He follows John Williams -- who had name recognition from his film scores for Steven Spielberg -- and Arthur Fiedler -- who set the nowfamiliar Pops pattern of pleasant music played in a casual, cabaret setting. Mr. Lockhart's job includes bringing his energy and audience appeal to bear on the static Pops formula.
Local coverage of his appointment has played up Lockhart's physical appearance. While mentioning his musicianship in passing, the media are clearly picking up on the new Pops conductor's personality, which the Boston Symphony has certainly not discouraged in its marketing. But Lockhart, in an interview, was magnanimous and mildly amused by his status as flavor of the month. ''I think of it as using the weapons of the 'enemy' against them,'' he says cheerfully of the media barrage.
''I don't care what the hype is about, as long as it brings people into the hall. I'm willing to use it, but it's important to realize that the hype is ephemeral,'' he says. ''And you need to use it while you've got the clout, the mandate, if you will, to get people there and then give them a reason for sticking around.''
The focus on looks doesn't surprise Lockhart. In performance, ''the conductor is the visualization for the audience,'' he says. ''It's no wonder that this personality cult has grown up, because we live in a visual age. And the hardest sell about [classical] music is that it's not essentially a visual medium.
''The conductor's role is as the intermediary, not only in how many podium gyrations he does, but in the way he talks to audiences and they feel swept along by his passion for the music. So it's incumbent upon conductors to involve the audience, to get them out of that passive mode.''
Lockhart speaks passionately about the importance of Pops concerts to the accessibility of concert music in general. When asked if Pops programs have an image problem, he's quick to counter that some people think the ''serious'' wing of symphony music is the one with image concerns: Audiences think it's stuffy, formal, and ''good for you.'' He says that while a conductor must approach the work seriously, classical music is entertainment in competition with other activities. So performances need an element of fun.
''The thing that everybody wants to know is, 'What are you going to change?' The answer is, 'Anything I change, I'm going to change very slowly,' '' Lockhart says. ''Because when you have an institution that has worked as well as this one, you don't just walk in with a scythe and start chopping away.''
The conductor is cautiously vague about steps he may take. He hopes to build the programs around themes, to unify the concerts and make them less like variety shows. He wants the Pops to collaborate with wellknown musicians and use video in a more cutting-edge way on the televised ''Evening at the Pops.'' He's looking at the Symphony Hall setting, the tables, and the menu. Everything's up for grabs, and Lockhart knows this is his shot at revitalizing an institution -- one sandwich at a time.