A four-night residency by roots music polymath and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Rhiannon Giddens, a screening of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” with live orchestra, high-flying acrobats, and the returns of Bernadette Peters and Leslie Odom Jr. are among the coming attractions in the Boston Pops’ spring season at Symphony Hall.
“Maybe we should have called it the ‘season without a theme,’ ” Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart jokes on the phone from his house on Cape Cod.
The season, which runs from May 8 to June 15, also features nods to the summer of 1969, including a Woodstock tribute with Arlo Guthrie and performances of James Beckel’s multimedia piece “From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond,” a Pops co-commission celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. But, says Lockhart, “sometimes we just try to look for the best things that we can slot in and not worry so much about trying to overarch it.”
One of those best things is Giddens, who tore up the Esplanade with her banjo, fiddle, and barefoot dancing at the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular last July Fourth. Heading up the “Redefining American Music” mini-festival, she’ll first join the Pops with her own band to play music from her albums (May 22-23). Then, she curates an homage to black composers of symphonic music including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price, and Billy Strayhorn, in which she’ll perform with the Pops, singer Darius de Haas, and pianist Lara Downes (May 24-25).
“We try to seek out musical experiences that are great, not just flavor of the month but people who really have something to say,” says Lockhart. “We’re going with Rhiannon past the realm of a successful performer, to an innovator and a creator wrapped into a performer. And I think that’s the kind of person I would love to develop an audience with.”
The season opens in grand fashion with Peters singing Broadway (May 8). After bowing out of last summer’s scheduled appearance due to a film project, “Hamilton” star Odom celebrates Nat King Cole (June 5-6). Cirque de la Symphonie brings aerialists, acrobats, and more circus fun to the stage (June 8). First-time Pops guests include actress Jane Lynch, toting her copy of the Great American Songbook (June 11-12), and travel maven Rick Steves leading a musical tour of Europe (June 13-14). Conductor Charles Floyd closes out the season with the 27th annual “Gospel Night,” featuring a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin (June 15).
“When you look at the Pops audience and who comes, you really do get an incredibly wide slice,” Lockhart says about the eclectic season.
The Pops aims to make that slice even wider with its first sensory-friendly family concert (June 1), which is designed for patrons with special sensitivities such as those associated with autism. Accommodations at this shortened concert include softer music and lighting, a designated quiet room and support space, and available noise-reduction headphones. At this concert, people will be free to react to the music in whatever manner is comfortable and natural for them, such as moving around, making noise, or clapping. Lockhart says he hopes to make these concerts a regular occurrence in seasons ahead.
One tradition is also taking a break this year. Though the work of conductor laureate John Williams will be celebrated with “Star Wars” on the big screen (May 10-11 and May 14) as well as a Film Night tribute concert (May 29-31), Williams himself is not scheduled to lead the orchestra this season, for the first time since 2005.
“John is 87 years old, and he is reducing his conducting commitments and, I believe, focusing on what he loves the most,” says Lockhart. “I’d love to see him back any time he wants to be on the podium — to share the podium with me or to have it all to himself, but I certainly understand that it’s exhausting.”
Tickets go on sale Monday and are available by calling 888-266-1200 or going to www.bostonpops.org.Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.