What it's like to sit in on a Boston Pops rehearsal

At 10:30 a.m., with the opening-night performance just 9 hours away, the Boston Pops Orchestra finished the traditional noisy warmup and swung into its final rehearsal under the baton of composer/conductor John Williams. This is Mr. Williams's eighth year as Pops conductor. Informality on the surface, seriousness at the core - this was the order of the day. To be sure, there would be a few chances to do things twice. But an orchestra beginning its 102nd season is expected to do almost everything right the first time.

Symphony Hall, where the Pops concerts are held, was nearly ready for the evening's entertainment. Tables arranged to seat the odd number of five persons stretched from wall to wall and almost touched the stage. Trays that would be used by waitresses in serving Pops Punch, among other drinks and foods, were in their ordained places.

Williams went over most of the program during the three-hour rehearsal, which included a half-hour session with guest soloist Tony Bennett and the three musicians who travel with him.

Of special interest were the premi`eres of two of Williams's recent compositions: ``Hymn to New England'' from ``New England Time Capsule,'' composed for the Mugar Omni Theater at Boston's Museum of Science; and ``We're Lookin' Good!'', a jazzy march composed for the Special Olympics and its 1987 International Summer Games.

New music for the Pops is felt to be a necessity, now that 18 seasons on public television have spread before its viewers just about every number the Pops plays. Some help has come from the Oregon-based Childs Foundation, which is underwriting some new arrangements. Two new recordings are planned for this year - one a ``jukebox'' collection of favorites, the other a Scottish-English medley, including music Williams composed for ``Jane Eyre'' and Peter Maxwell Davies's ``Orkney Wedding,'' complete with bagpipes.

Baton duties this season will be shared by assistant conductor Carl St. Clair (next Tuesday and Wednesday), and, later on, by associate conductor Harry Ellis Dickson, and guest conductors Bruce Hangen, Michael Lankester, Erich Kunzel, and Newton Wayland.

As the pre-opening-night rehearsal flowed on, blue Bill Blass jackets, to be worn by males in the orchestra, hung in a room backstage. New blue blouses for the women had not arrived by the time the rehearsal started, but they were expected any hour. For the rehearsal, orchestra members set their own styles - mostly slacks and sweaters, in respectful consideration of the unseasonably cold and drizzly day outside. Williams himself cut a neatly informal figure with charcoal turtleneck and brown slacks, to which he added a sport coat for a later press conference, where he announced a 10-city tour for the companion Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, which annually presents a short season of outdoor concerts.

Supp'e's ``Poet and Peasant'' Overture, near the top of the program, inspired a brief chat with the brass section. ``We don't hear those three notes - da-da-da - but we will if it is softer and shorter,'' Mr. Williams advised. And in the lilting waltz segment, he worked with the violins: ``I hope I'm not waiting so long [to bring you in] that it is incompatible with your bowing.''

In the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's ``Eugene Onegin,'' the percussionists had no role and left the stage - except for the tympanist. As the waltz swirled on, one of the second violinists saw the need to pencil a change in his score and stopped playing. Williams took the dropout in his stride. This was just a rehearsal, after all. The mood overall was relaxed, but the primary ingredients were alertness and concentration, so that even occasional banging noises just outside the auditorium caused no dismay.

Not all the comments came from the podium. A violinist had a question about a dotted eighth note. Williams confered with the concertmaster, who then turned around and demonstrated how the passage should be played.

Of a segment of Strauss's ``Thunder and Lightning'' Polka, Williams advised that it should be played ``con brio - but no rushing.'' The percussionists had returned, and the bass drummer was providing the thunder of the title, with gentle drum rolls starting near the rim and drifting purposefully toward the center of the big bass drum. The ``lightning'' suggested by the cymbals was apparently a shade too loud, and the player seemed to realize this on his own - though a look from Mr. Williams may have played a part. In any case, the conductor followed up with an approving nod. At the end of the piece, Mr. Williams issued a matter-of-fact ``Bravo.''

The new march ``We're Lookin' Good!'' was a rousing number including a generous drum solo, duplicated by a pair of snare drummers, featuring taps of the drumsticks as well as the rousing, tricky drumbeat of a typical marching band. The brass section, earlier advised more than once to play softer, came into its own, moving through its fanfares with easy confidence.

During one of the breaks in rehearsal, I asked one of the orchestra members whether a conductor's attention to small details was worth it, considering that the audience would be eating and drinking and perhaps chatting. ``That doesn't matter. He does it for us - to improve the clarity of our work,'' she said.

I also asked several of the players how performances differ from rehearsals. More than one had a simple answer: ``We know we'll play the pieces without stopping.'' But another said, ``In rehearsal we're like children, but tonight we'll be grown-ups.''

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