Keith Lockhart has conducted the Boston Pops’ Fourth of July concert for 20 years, and as he prepares for his 21st, he knows exactly what he’d consider the low point of his history with the event: the time it never happened. “I think my worst memory, honestly, is last year, when we didn’t do a Fourth of July concert,” says Lockhart, referring to when Hurricane Arthur cancelled the performance proper and even truncated the traditional July 3 public rehearsal. “Even before I came to the Pops, I don’t think I’ve had a Fourth of July off since the ’80s. Seriously. It’s always a day of celebration, and the celebrations often involve music. So sitting home, it was like Santa Claus sitting home on Christmas Eve — it just felt wrong.”
But that was last year, and with plenty of experience to draw from, Lockhart knows that there’s always another concert to look to. “I suppose what I wish I would have realized — which is true about a lot of things, I guess, when you’re younger — is that the sun would come up tomorrow no matter what,” he says. And with no named weather event on the horizon as of press time, the Pops — with guests including Broadway rocker Michael Cavanaugh, former “American Idol” powerhouse Melinda Doolittle, and chamber-pop quartet Sons of Serendip — should once again return to the Hatch Shell on July 4, exactly as they did when Lockhart first joined them two decades ago.
Q. What do you remember most about your first July 4 concert?
A. I remember the soloists. I remember the Pointer Sisters and Mel Tormé. One of the interesting and poignant things about looking back, as they request you to do in the 20th anniversary, are those people who aren’t with us anymore, who you’ve been involved with at some point or another. I had done some stuff with Mel previously, and he had graciously agreed to join us. It was fun sharing the stage with him. What I do remember, though, is he came out, he was great, he did his stuff, and then we made the mistake of asking him to lead the patriotic singalong. And it turned out he didn’t know any of the words to the patriotic singalong. Not even to the first verse of “America the Beautiful.” So he was scatting. It was, [singing] “O beautiful, boo wah dee dah. . . ” (laughs)
Q. What is your best memory of July 4th with the Boston Pops?
A. I think a lot of my best memories are after concerts that have gone particularly well, standing on the back porch of the Hatch Shell with a beer in my hand and a satisfied smile on my face watching the fireworks. Because one fun thing about that celebration is that we don’t do the last half-hour of it, which allows us to actually drop off and enjoy it for a bit.
Q. Is there anything that you haven’t done with the Fourth of July concert that you’d like to?
A. There are a couple of things. One of them is that I would love to integrate the fireworks, which are an important part of the concert, more into the live orchestral concert. We do a little bit of that with “[The] 1812 [Overture]” and “Stars and Stripes Forever,” but I would like to do some live choreography, which is difficult to do for a number of reasons. Some of them are musical, some of them are technical. Even little things, like they always turn the lights off to the Hatch Shell so that the fireworks will read to all of those people who are there, and so therefore it’s hard for us to play in the dark. (laughs) And there are more complicated situations as well. So that’s something I’d like to do. Another thing I’d like to do is have Springsteen be the Fourth of July soloist, because I just think it’s silly he hasn’t been yet. So if he’s reading the Boston Globe. . .
Q. When do you start planning each year’s concert?
A. Oh, not kidding, pretty much on the 5th. Because the problem is, if you wait a month, you forget. You had great ideas, like, “Oh, we should do this” or “Let’s never do that again,” and you forget those things really fast, because you move on to the next project. So the planning starts then. It’s more just the post-mortem happens then. Then I’d say it gets serious around January, February of the year going into it and we start thinking about artist choices. It’s funny, people say, “Well, why don’t you book the artist a year in advance?” Well, most popular artists won’t book a year in advance.
Q. Right, they don’t know what their summer tours are going to be.
A. Yeah, exactly. And the big-venue presenters, Live Nation and people like that, will not allow them to do that, because if they’re playing a week later in Fenway Park, they’re going to be really mad that we just let them play for the free audience. So anyway, it’s funny, no matter how hard we try to push the process earlier, we still end up in June going, “Uh-oh.” (laughs) But again, the sun does come up the next day.
BOSTON POPS FIREWORKS SPECTACULAR
At: DCR Hatch Shell, Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Free.
Interview was condensed and edited. Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.