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Pops’ Lockhart returns with a BBC cast

(Week of December 2, 2010)

For years, Vero Beach has considered conductor Keith Lockhart – who five times led the legendary Boston Pops before crowds that jammed Riverside Park for benefit concerts – as one of its own.

For now, those concerts have ended. But Vero still saw Lockhart this season, at the helm of his new musical crew -- the BBC Concert Orchestra.

On their first United States tour in eight years, the 53 musicians kicked off the Indian River Symphonic Association season, bringing a Russian pianist and an otherwise British-themed evening to the Community Church Nov. 18.

John’s Island resident Laura McDermott served on the committees with the Indian River Hospital Foundation and Riverside Theatre that brought Lockhart and the Boston Pops to Vero.

“We were one of the largest venues on that tour,” says McDermott. “I think Vero probably holds a special place in his heart.”

Inclement weather threatened the Pops concert twice, eventually moving it indoors and taking away the festival atmosphere and fireworks. One year, rain forced musicians to run for cover to salvage their instruments, leaving only Lockhart and guest soloists in ponchos, gamely playing piano and dancing. 

But the first year, the weather was beautiful, McDermott recalls. “The sun was setting and I remember him saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never conducted in sunglasses.’”

Patrons paid up to $1,000 per person for top-tier seats to watch Lockhart conduct in the park. At the height of its popularity, “Pops in Paradise” drew 13,000, the major fundraiser of the year for both organizations that undertook the daunting task of putting it on.

This time, it was the Indian River Symphonic Association that scored big in getting Lockhart to include the intimate  church setting on his tour, with tickets at a far more affordable $50 and seating limited to around 700.

Inside the recently refurbished church, a new $6 million pipe organ served as a dramatic backdrop for the musicians. With most only in their 20s, and nearly all of them British, the jocular group piled into the church from buses, lugging their instruments. Dressed in miniskirts and narrow-legged jeans and sporting edgy hair cuts, they looked more like the cast of an off-Broadway show than a classical orchestra.

“The mean age is a little younger than the Boston Pops,” Lockhart said, sizing up the ensemble after a quick rehearsal. “They are a very energized group.”

Dressed in a burgundy T-shirt, khakis and black sneakers, the boyish-looking Lockhart was indiscernible from the bevy of young talent. He was, however, moving to his own tempo, somewhat more adagio than allegro, in this the last four days of a 20-day U.S. tour.

Huddling with pianist Ilva Yakuschev at the shiny, black grand piano, he worked intently on a phrase of music, an apparent problem spot that had not yet been resolved. As the pianist repeated a few bars, oblivious to the din of musicians warming up around them, Lockhart delivered hand cues like a film director.

Suddenly, the two reached their moment of Zen. Elated, they rose with relief and moved on to the rest of the music, ringing out in a cacophony of melodies from spaces all through the church.

Lockhart, 51, and visibly road-weary on this autumn evening, has enough years under his belt to have fathered most of the musicians in his charge. Clutching his church-hall coffee in its Styrofoam cup, he finally stepped up to the conductor’s platform, like a college professor delivering a lecture.

Suddenly, his fatigue dissipated. Summoning the charisma fans have come to expect from the multi-platinum recording artist, he seized the attention of all, and began the brief rehearsal.

Lockhart only recently joined the BBC Concert Orchestra, adding London to his grueling year-round schedule of performances stringing from Boston to Utah to Florida.

Though the recent East Coast tour was a strictly classical program, featuring the mesmerizing piano music of Mendelssohn played by Yakushev, Lockhart said the versatility of the orchestra extends to jazz and all flavors of popular music, much like the Boston Pops, of which he is a 15-year veteran.

Over the years, Lockhart has been harshly criticized for not establishing himself as a “serious” conductor and instead playing with a diverse cast of musicians. Unapologetic, Lockhart has earned household-name status in the States precisely by not maintaining the air of a classical music snob. He has seen his audience grow, reaching those who he says “don’t even know that they like classical music.”

 “Classical music is a great gift to be shared with everyone,” said Lockhart. “We are missionaries of the art form. Our job is to say, ‘This is for you.’ ”

To that end, Lockhart works to support music education programs and summer institutes to train young “missionaries” for the cause.

A native of Poughkeepsie, NY, Lockhart holds degrees from Furman University and Carnegie Mellon University and he studied conducting at the Brevard Music Center, where he now serves as Musical Director for the Summer Institute.

Prior to joining the Boston Pops as Principal Conductor in 1995, Lockhart held the post of conducting fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and later led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Pops and was music director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.

Lockhart has a fantasy: to write a novel. In the meantime, he makes do telling stories with music. 

“The way music tells stories is one of the things that attracted me to music -- though I didn’t know it -- when I was a little boy,” Lockhart said.

Lockhart is fascinated by language, by stories and by writing -- his own and others.’ He speaks passionately, even seductively, about this sideline obsession, as a man  sneaking off for a rendezvous with his mistress.

“I love language, but music has a unique ability to connect people to stories through an external environment, without the barrier of language,” Lockhart said. “

Lockhart immerses himself in the lives of composers and in the historical context of the pieces he conducts. Through reading memoirs and biographies, Lockhart said, he tries to paint a picture of what the composer’s life was like -- both the tragedy and the ecstasy.

He imagines what the world was like at the time the piece was written. Through  empathy, Lockhart said he is able to feel certain pieces of music on a deeper level and seeks a reflection of those details in the performance.

His form of method conducting revealed itself as he introduced British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony Number 5 in D major, and gave a thumbnail sketch of where Williams’ head might have been while putting the melody to paper.

“This piece was composed in 1942 and premiered at the Proms in London in 1943,” Lockhart said, reminding the audience that Great Britain was in the throes of World War II. “It reflects this sorrow, it’s also a eulogy for the loved ones lost by just about everyone in the audience,” Lockhart tells his modern-day audience. “You can also hear uncertainty about the fate of the England that Vaughan Williams loves so much.”

He can also get them with a joke. When introducing the final movement of Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Lockhart evoked a roar of laughter from the crowd, while poking fun at himself.

“We’ll play the ‘Wedding March,’ which I hope holds happy memories for most of you,” Lockhart said with a wry smile.

As anyone who keeps up with Beantown gossip knows, Lockhart landed in Boston in 1995, divorced from his college sweetheart. He married Violinist Lucia Lin and then suffered a widely publicized divorce. After enjoying a second tenure on the list of Boston’s most eligible bachelors, Lockhart married his third wife, Emiley, in 2007; the couple’s son, Edward, was born in April.

Anyone who dreads the hectic swirl and to-do lists that mark the Christmas season should trade lives with Keith Lockhart one December. This weekend, Lockhart and the Boston Pops will embark upon a 42-concert Holiday Pops series in Boston and around New England in the span of 24 days.

“I’m only conducting about 40 of them,” Lockhart said, as if they’re taking it easy on him this year.

Also this weekend, Lockhart is gathering vocalists to attempt a world record for the largest number of Christmas carol singers in Boston. He’s been active on Facebook and Twitter promoting all the holiday goings-on surrounding the Boston Pops.

The Indian River Symphonic Association concert season continues with more well-known conductors and great programs. Barbara Cox, the concert administrator, said IRSA was pleased to be able to give Vero residents a chance to see Lockhart conduct this season.

When another orchestra canceled for the November concert, Lockhart’s strong connection with Vero Beach was a major factor in booking the BBC Concert Orchestra.

IRSA season subscriptions are sold out, but individual tickets are still available for each of the upcoming concerts held at Community Church in Vero Beach.