This year Keith Lockhart celebrates his 20th anniversary as conductor of The Boston Pops, a job he describes as “an incredible bully pulpit.” But “job” may not be the best word to explain his role as maestro, which is high-profile across not only Massachusetts, but the nation, too. It is also a position that has only been vacant once since 1930.
“Where else would a conductor walk down the street and people say, ‘That’s Keith Lockhaaaaht!’?” he laughs. (And, yes, he did a good accent.) “That is not so much a tribute to me as much as a tribute to how dialed-in the community is to The Boston Pops.” baystateparent talked to the father of three about the benefits of later fatherhood, work-life balance, and the responsibility of constantly innovating a 130-year-old institution.
The role of conductor of the Pops seems to be more of a lifestyle than a job. Is that accurate?
The part the public sees is only the poster child. You’re a poster child for classical music in general, you’re a poster child for the Boston Pops, your face shows up on a lot of signs. But that’s not really where the work is. The work is continually looking at what we’re doing, planning for the future, bringing new elements, new energies, new commissions, and learning an immense amount of repertoire. You’re constantly doing a lot of work that doesn’t actually have to do with conducting.
If it were just the conducting part of the job, it would be a part-time thing. But as it is, it is an all-encompassing thing. What we try to do at The Boston Pops is think about how to bring great music to the widest group of people and inspire them to be involved in it. It keeps me out of trouble, between that and the kids.
You followed John Williams, who followed Arthur Fiedler. Looking back, did you realize the enormity of what you were undertaking, at the time at age 35?
Maybe, gratefully, I didn’t. But the job had only been open once before since 1930. It was kind of a big deal and it was pretty obvious when I got here and the flashbulbs started popping. At that point I couldn’t have seen 20 years down the road, because what’s long-term when you’re 35?
What has surprised you most about the role?
The amount of time thinking about what to do next, how to connect. With The Pops, it’s always looking at what new audience are we not touching? what sort of artist could we make music with who would excite that audience and bring them into our spectrum? There’s a lot fewer rules, so there’s a lot more thinking.
Fewer rules must be great in some respects and challenging in others.
It is. It’s great to have that freedom to be able to do things that nobody else has done. It’s a wonderful chance for innovation. I think we’re in an art form — not just classical music, but live performing arts — that needs innovation right now.
How do you keep a pulse on where the audience wants to go?
There are lots of people willing to give advice on the subject. I find it really important to always make sure we hire people on The Pops staff who are at least 15 to 20 years younger than I am, because I think one of the problems is you begin to think that everything stopped with you. That you are young, cutting edge and you realize there are people in the market who are 30 years younger than you. It’s a lot of listening, you try to check your own arrogance at the door. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve gone for 130 years strong by just pandering, lowest-common-denominator music-making. We’re always looking for new things to do, but new things worthy of the institution.
Is there a vocalist you haven’t worked with yet that you want to?
In terms of iconic figures I’d love to work with: Clapton, Bruce Springsteen. I think that would be a pretty amazing Fourth of July concert. Then there are some up-and-coming people who would be amazing, too. Bruno Mars comes to mind as somebody who really should come sing with The Boston Pops. When people are at the very height of their commercial success, it’s very hard to get them to think, “Hey, let’s do something artistically interesting with The Boston Pops.”
What are your keys for a good work-life balance? How do you make it work?
I’m still working on that, it’s something in progress. My youngest is 3 and I’m 55, and I have to say my youngest two at home, who are 5 and 3, I’m glad I had them now because it’s much easier for me to be less selfish than it would have been 25 years ago when “normal” people would have had kids. It was all so much about me: I have to be gone for six weeks in a row, I have to stay up until 4 a.m. studying this. I would have been a terrible parent and they would have written books about me. [laughs] Now you begin to realize you don’t have to anymore, partly because you’ve fought a lot of those battles; whether you won or lost them, you’re past them. You begin to realize there are other things that will bring you greater satisfaction in the long run.
My schedule is very different than most people. I’m gone these days probably about one-third of the year, which is many fewer weeks than I was gone a decade ago. I’m gone a long time, but when I’m home I can go pick [the kids] up on a Wednesday at noon. You have to schedule it. You have to block these times off and say, “I will not allow work to creep into every facet of my life.”
We have a place out on the Cape. The best thing we do at the Cape is my wife and I take our cell phones and put them in the drawer. I check my emails when I get up in the morning and when I go to bed at night and that’s it. If you don’t do that, you find yourself saying, “Gee I wonder if somebody else needs me more,” and the truth of the matter is: Your family needs you more.