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On Holiday Pops’ 50th anniversary, Keith Lockhart feels joy — and a surge of adrenaline

Celebrating 50 years of Holiday Pops
WATCH: The Boston Pops Orchestra has something for everyone, including a Gen-Z lingo-spouting Santa declaring ‘Holiday Pops just hits different, no cap.’

You can’t hold back Keith Lockhart. Bring up the joyous, unironic version of “Winter Wonderland” performed by Candice Bergen and the original cast of “Saturday Night Live” and he’ll discuss Garrett Morris being a trained singer who would occasionally perform classical pieces on the show. Mention the unofficial “monkey on a flagpole” lyrics to Bagley’s “National Emblem March” that show up in the climax to the Pops’ crowd-favorite arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and he’ll admit to having cleared them of offensiveness (if not scatology) with Dr. Demento himself. Ask him his opinion on Kate Bush’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he’ll cop to having owned several of her albums and offer to sing a bit of “Wuthering Heights.” (An offer, it should be mentioned, that he will not make good on.)

In other words, Lockhart remains, with his wide-ranging knowledge of all sorts of music and rapid recall of same, uniquely qualified to lead the Boston Pops, especially as it’s about to kick off its 50th anniversary of holiday concerts, a tradition begun by Arthur Fielder in 1973 (when it was called A Pops Christmas Party). With 44 performances in four states over 24 days, the calendar is very nearly as packed as the Pops’ pre-pandemic schedule. And still it’s not enough. “If I were more mercenary than I am, I’d say ‘If only December was a couple of weeks longer…,’ because it’s a great time to make music,” the conductor says. “It’s a time when people are really hungry to accept it.”

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The cover of the program guide for the Pops' first holiday concerts, then called A Pops Christmas Party, in 1973.Courtesy of BSO

Q. As we get into the Holiday Pops season, I hope you’re feeling well.

A. Yeah, I’m OK for now. We’ll see in a couple of weeks. Usually what happens is, I get through it all because the adrenaline keeps you going, and then I get a major cold the day after it’s over. Which I guess is probably better than the alternative, but you’d rather feel good when you finally have the time to feel good.

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Q. What Christmas music do you personally choose to listen to when you are not conducting the Pops? Or are you so burned out by Christmas music that you have no capacity for it in a non-professional context?

A. Well, normally I am not very good at tuning music out. But I’ve gotten really good at tuning out soundtracks in malls and things like that, because after a while you can’t take it anymore. I’ve always been a Christmas music junkie, which is probably good because I probably would have driven myself crazy by now if I weren’t. The stuff that means the most to me is very quiet and reflective, mostly from the classical tradition. One of the things that’s a personal indulgent favorite that I’m doing on this performance is the Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on Christmas Carols,” and that sound, that “Christ Church, Oxford at midnight on Christmas Eve” sound, is really kind of my spirit place, where I go on Christmas.

Q. You’ve made some quiet inroads into making political statements — subtle ones, but there for those who choose to look — in Pops programming over the last decade or so. But given the situation in Israel and Gaza, this year’s selection of Lucas Richman’s Hebrew-language “Tikkun Olam (Heal The World)” is a little more upfront about it. What emboldened you to be more explicit in your messaging?

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A. I would take exception to the view that it’s a more overtly political statement. Through the 28 years I’ve now done this, it’s been the first Christmas after the Marathon bombing, the first Christmas after 9/11, Christmas after the Sandy Hook shooting. It’s like it’s a “you were there” moment for the last third of a century. We’ve tried to deal with what’s on people’s minds and in their hearts and make it something of a spiritual experience, as opposed to just an entertainment experience, though there is plenty of that.

It didn’t seem like a good year to dance the hora on the front of the stage. This piece basically said something that I think we can all ascribe to, which is, “Hey, for the sake of what we’re leaving behind and for the sake of our children and for the sake of the planet, we need to stop this and heal the world.” All people on any side of any conflict these days can do is pray for peace and people who are courageous enough to seek peace. So it’s meant as a prayer for all of us.

Q. You said that the Holiday Pops schedule is not quite up to your pre-pandemic intensity. What is preventing you from going back to those numbers?

A. I think probably caution. I think everybody wants to see, as we add more, how they will do, and it’s being a little bit more strategic about where they’re placed. Mondays early in December were not particularly a day that immediately people flocked to. So I think we’ve added very carefully, trying to see what the audience wants and give them as much of that within the bounds of reality. So I’m happy with this number. It actually gives me two or three nights off during December, which is something that I wasn’t used to at one point.

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Q. I would pause for a moment to say that I think it’s very interesting that you describe a schedule that has you averaging just under two performances a day as cautious.

A. [Laughs] Well, I have to say it’s a little more daunting than it was 25 years ago.

HOLIDAY POPS 2023

At Symphony Hall. Dec. 1-24. Additional appearances in Worcester (Dec. 2), Storrs, Conn. (Dec. 8), Manchester, N.H. (Dec. 10), Providence (Dec. 16), Lowell (Dec. 17). Tickets from $37. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org/pops

Interview was edited and condensed. Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com or on Bluesky @spacecitymarc.bsky.social.