Boston Pops Orchestra
BOSTON POPS ORCHESTRA
Formed: 1885, Boston, Massachusetts
Genre: Classical, Pop
The Boston Pops is one of the oldest and most venerable musical institutions in the United States. Founded in 1885 for a Promenade Series by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Pops promised Bostonians programs of "light music of the best class." It also promised Boston Symphony musicians employment during the six months of the year they were normally unemployed.
Begun in the summer as an attempt to recreate the ambience of the concert gardens of Vienna, the Pops Orchestra won immediate popularity and quickly evolved into its comfortable Americana persona. The orchestra's timing coincided with the development of a distinctive American music in the 1890s, especially that of march king John Philip Sousa, whose music the orchestra frequently performed. By 1899 the orchestra had adopted Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever!" as the traditional finale for its concerts. More than a century later, the Pops format is essentially the same: programs of three sections divided by two intermissions.
From the start the orchestra championed music by composers of its time. As long as the music was fun the audiences were loyal. In 1890 the orchestra—still essentially the Boston Symphony musicians—formally adopted the name of the Boston Pops Orchestra. By the 1920s, the Pops was running out of steam. The Italian composer and pianist Alfred Casella, appointed music director in 1927, tried to deepen the orchestra's programming, performing heavier and more cerebral music. Audience complaints led to the termination of Casella's contract at the end of 1929.
That set the stage for Arthur Fiedler, then a thirty-five-year-old violist who had been a member of the orchestra for fifteen years. Fiedler took over as music director and began one of the longest and most successful musical partnerships in American music history. Fiedler had a keen business sense, knew his audience, and infused his programs with a sense of fun. He redecorated the concert hall (installing a big crystal chandelier over the stage) and revamped the music, concentrating on the best light music of the day (his first program included Ravel's "Bolero," which had been composed only the year before), including music by Gershwin and Romberg. He also refocused the orchestra's repertoire on American music, programming what at the time was called "symphonic jazz" and including music from current Broadway hits. Fiedler's changes were an instant pick-me-up for the orchestra, and audiences returned.
In 1935 the orchestra made its first recordings, among them "Jalousie" by Jacob Gade. The song became a big hit, the first orchestral recording to sell 1 million records. The recording also established the orchestra's identity for a vast new audience. For the ensuing fifty years under Fiedler's baton, the Boston Pops became the most recorded orchestra in the world, selling millions of records. In 1962 the orchestra began regular national broadcasts and in 1969 landed on public television in the Evening at Pops series. The orchestra's July 4, 1976, bicentennial concert on the Boston Esplanade drew an audience of 400,000, the biggest in orchestral history. Through TV, radio, and recordings, the orchestra became an American ambassador, touring both inside and outside the United States. Fiedler engaged some of the best performers of the day as soloists, but he was the Pops's charismatic star until his death in 1979.
The Pops was so identified with Fiedler that it was difficult to imagine the orchestra without him; the inspired choice to succeed him was John Williams, well known for his orchestral music for blockbuster Hollywood movies such as Star Wars, Superman, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Williams brought in a new generation of fans, broadened and updated the orchestra's repertoire, and led the orchestra in a series of best-selling recordings. Williams's movie celebrity helped sell the orchestra's tours.
In 1993 Keith Lockhart took over as music director. Lockhart broadened the orchestra's touring activities, taking the Pops to concert halls and sports arenas across the country. The Pops makes a half-dozen appearances on national television each year, tours internationally, and, in 1998, was nominated for a Grammy in the Classical Crossover category for The Celtic Album. In February 2002 the Pops performed in the pregame show at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, the first time an orchestra has been featured at a Super Bowl.
The Boston Pops is a living national monument that attracts fans and visitors from all over America. Its musical standards—as you might expect from musicians of the Boston Symphony—are high, and its repertoire, though lightweight, is performed with zest. In the late twentieth century, most American orchestras performed regular pops concerts, but none did it with the flair of the Bostonians.
Fiedler's Greatest Hits (RCA, 1991); American Visions (RCA, 1997); Cinema Serenade, Vol. 2 (Sony, 1999).
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