Pops conductor makes a splash

On the cover of the Boston Pops' latest album, a tuxedo-clad Keith Lockhart joyously falls backward into emerald-green water. But he concedes he didn't really take the plunge.

"There's a little computer magic going on there," Mr. Lockhart says. "But I did have to fall backward a number of times."

To further illustrate the summertime fun found in "A Splash of Pops" (RCA Victor), he's also shown on the back jacket of the CD wearing a Hawaiian shirt and holding an orange-and-white fish with barbecue tongs as it gives him a friendly kiss on the cheek. In previous Pops albums, he's been seen in a kilt and sporting a Santa suit.

And he's not a bit apologetic.

"I like the concept of the album covers we do," he says. "The whole point is that they stand out on the store shelves."

Lockhart would have appreciated a real dip in a pool July 4, when he led the traditional Pops concert at the Hatch Shell on the Charles River during a withering heat wave. His blue shirt became drenched with perspiration.

That was "the hottest I've ever been on national TV," he confided in a recent telephone interview. "I brought two shirts with me, and I kept switching - someone was backstage ironing one dry while I wore the other."

Remarkably, the concert marked a first-ever visit to the Pops podium by longtime Boston Symphony music director Seiji Ozawa, who guest conducted Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

"It was a great gesture toward Seiji and what he's meant to Boston and world music," Lockhart says.

Did the still-boyish looking Lockhart pick up any pointers from his senior companion? "I've been watching Seiji conduct since the early '70s, when he was a young guy wearing an amulet and bell bottoms," he says. "He's extremely physically gifted as a conductor - the music is internalized in his body."

Mr. Ozawa will leave Boston in 2002 to take over the Vienna State Opera. "To replace [Ozawa] will be a very tough job," he says. "When you head an organization that long [25 years], it begins to resemble you...."

Would he be interested? "Moving between the Pops and the Symphony wouldn't be an easy row to hoe," he says. Even though the Pops is part of the same organization (it is basically made up of the Symphony players minus the principals), Bostonians are used to keeping the two at arm's length. "We think of them as very separate," he says.

The highlight of "A Splash of Pops" is a new piece commissioned for the Pops, "With Voices Raised," a monumental work for orchestra, mixed choruses, and speakers by the composing team that created the Broadway show "Ragtime." One early reviewer called it "politically correct sentimentality," but Lockhart differs.

"The switchboard was flooded with people [after the July 4 concert] saying how moving it was," he says. To mark the end of the 20th century, he says, the Pops wanted to present something that wasn't a "powdered wigs and knee breeches" kind of patriotic piece. It celebrates those who've spoken out for freedom and human rights, a message not just about America's accomplishments, he says, but its unfinished aspirations, too.

Lockhart, now in his fifth season in Boston, says the Pops is "the ultimate outreach tool for the classical-music industry.

"We have made more inroads into people's lives: 30 years on TV, with millions watching, and a long recording legacy stretching back to the gramophone era."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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