You saw his smile everywhere, its gleaming wattage radiating out from billboards and advertisements. His story was irresistible: the energetic, charismatic new conductor whose hiring by the Boston Symphony Orchestra made headlines. He was the talk of the town at 35 — the youthful artist meant to help transform one of the world’s most storied symphonic institutions.
The year was 1995, and the name attached to the grin was Keith Lockhart, the baby-faced young gun hired to lead the Boston Pops.
“I was greeted by taxicab drivers and people driving garbage trucks and people washing windows on Mass. Ave. by name,” he says, leaning back in his chair during an interview at Symphony Hall one recent morning. “And I thought, it’s so cool that the institution has such a reach. In a lot of cities much bigger than Boston, people have no idea that there is a great orchestra in their midst.”
Lockhart, who celebrates his 20th anniversary at the Pops with a spring season that starts Wednesday, felt more than a little déjà vu last year as he watched the hoopla surrounding the arrival of another 35-year-old rising star: Andris Nelsons, then freshly installed as BSO music director.
“Andris is the artistic leader of the institution,” Lockhart says. “To have a boss now who could at least biologically be my child . . . it says something about the passage of time.”
Don’t read that as wistfulness. Lockhart, a Brookline resident who wears his 55 years lightly, brims with vitality as he discusses the complementary missions of the BSO and Pops, which include many of the same players and coexist under the BSO as umbrella organization.
He has watched Nelsons’s advent with genuine admiration. “The energy, the youthfulness, the forward-looking thing is something that this institution very much needs,” he says. “There is a wave of energy and enthusiasm, and it’s reflected in the product, reflected in the playing, reflected in the way people are viewing the orchestra. As opposed to a staid tradition, they’re viewing it as something active and vibrant and living. And from what I can see, he has the musical goods to back all of that up.”
Lockhart couldn’t have known it when he and Nelsons met for the first time at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2012, but he had already made a strong impression on his young boss-to-be. It happened when Nelsons was a 16-year-old student in Riga, Latvia.
“I was studying trumpet at the time when I first saw Keith conduct by way of a videocassette recording of his first concert as Boston Pops conductor, when he officially took over from the amazing John Williams in 1995,” Nelsons wrote via e-mail from Birmingham, England, where he will conduct his final concerts as director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in May and June. “I remember very clearly that I found Keith to be a wonderful conductor with such great and clear technique — something that is deeply appreciated by musicians of all ages.”
Lockhart also brought to the Pops a knack for evangelism. He says that he always found it easy to talk to audiences about music.
“At that point, they didn't teach you to do all that in music school,” he says. Things have changed since then, he notes: “People have realized that musicians, for their own survival, need to be skilled proponents of their art form, not just skilled practitioners.”
Along with his technical skill and versatility as a musician, Lockhart’s capacity for reaching a broad range of audience members across an equally broad range of circumstances — from Fourth of July extravaganzas viewed around the world to quieter events no less meaningful at Boston Children’s Hospital — have earned him the respect of his players. Lawrence Wolfe, assistant principal bassist of the BSO and principal bassist of the Pops, recounts a story he first told 20 years ago about how Lockhart, when informed that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had just died, spontaneously altered a Pops program to honor her.
“It was beautiful how Keith was able to do that, and provide a heartfelt and appropriate tribute to a great lady who had passed away,” Wolfe says. “It’s those instantaneous reflexes, being able to discern what’s best for the moment. Whether it be put down the baton, pick up the microphone and speak to the audience, or put down the microphone and conduct the orchestra, he has reflexes like a cat.”
Lockhart’s skill as a musical ambassador able to traipse blithely from classical chestnuts to current pop hits has also served in helping the Pops lay out the welcome mat for a wide variety of celebrity collaborators. Notable guests have included such rock stars as Elton John, Steven Tyler, and Elvis Costello; jazz icons like Mel Torme and Chick Corea; actors Robert DeNiro, Jason Alexander, and Ben Affleck — and more than a few nervous politicians.
“He understands stage fright and jitters and stuff like that from somebody who has had occasion from time to time to be in front of a crowd, but not so much with a full orchestra behind them,” former governor Deval Patrick said by phone. A veteran of several Pops collaborations including a 2009 Tanglewood performance of Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” that he recalls especially fondly, Patrick lauded Lockhart’s capacity to reach new audiences.
“The Pops is part of who we are in this community,” he said. “It’s a part of our own way of seeing ourselves, and it’s a part of what we project to the rest of the world. And what Keith brings is keeping it current and youthful, because he’s so current and youthful.”
All told, it’s not the career that Lockhart might have envisioned for himself once upon a time, or even could have. “People always ask, ‘Was that your dream job?’ Well, number one, the job has only been open once since 1930, so it’s not the kind of job you should set your sights on.” And in 1994, some friends advised him to turn down the position, warning that he would be typecast as a “pops conductor” and shunned in standard repertoire.
For a decade during his Pops tenure, Lockhart also served as the music director of the Utah Symphony, concentrating on classical repertoire and notching a complete Mahler symphony cycle on his belt. As the principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and the artistic director of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, he continues to get his fill of Dvorak and Mahler.
But does he ever think about the road not taken?
“When you’re young and yearning for these things, and watching the great conductors do the great repertoire, you go, ‘Some day I’ll be that person,’ ” he says. “And it turns out that, at the end of the day, some day you’re your own person.”