On this balmy evening, 119 musicians took the W-P Auditorium stage for what turned out to be a musical excursion of sorts. Keith Lockhart, the star attraction, led the Transylvania Symphony Orchestra. The conductor of the Utah Symphony (since 1998) and the Boston Pops (1995) he was a student at BMC for two summers. The first year he was a piano student; the next, he played bass clarinet. A graduate of nearby Furman University in SC, he eventually went on to get a degree in conducting from Carnegie-Mellon University. His immense popularity and musical skills have generated honorary doctorates from the Boston Conservatory, Northeastern University and Furman. But his roots are here, and he returns annually to spend a week rehearsing students and presenting one concert. The hall was full.
Lockhart appeared on stage and immediately started talking about his time at BMC, then moved to a monologue about the first work on the program, blue cathedral (1999) by Jennifer Higdon. That would have been welcome except he read directly from the program notes, so everyone in the audience already had that information. He did mention this piece is currently the most performed orchestra work by a contemporary composer – which can be a good or bad thing. We could have gotten along without the other gibberish.
Once into the single-movement blue cathedral, we began to observe some of the trademark skills that have received so much attention. Lockhart brings a sense of theater to his role, working with hands only – no stick – but using a score. He is clearly a stylist. This is dangerous territory, for the tendency is to become an easy target as a charlatan if there isn't any substance to the act. Here, at least, there seemed to be enough substance to satisfy the audience.
At times, his conducting technique appears as through working wet clay on a centering wheel; molding and nurturing each phrase, kneading the harmony, drawing dynamic changes from somewhere deep on the stage. We began to wonder about all the effort when at the half way point there had not been a lot of time-signature changes. The trumpets have a feature point toward the end, and while they were in tune they couldn't keep the pace or ensemble. At the end, the entire violin section had their instruments at rest while activating Chinese reflex balls, those little chrome balls that make a bell-like sound when shaken. This addition is an enormously creative and satisfying contribution to the "sound plane" and was a welcome change of harmonic direction that proved both atmospheric and thought-provoking.
Beyond that, I won't tell you much about the piece because I need to hear it again, but the program notes were a little troubling. "Blue – like the sky. ... where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals – a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression, serving as a symbolic doorway into and out of this world ... I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky… the walls would be transparent… I saw the image of clouds and blueness.... In my mind's eye the listener would enter from the back… crystal pillars… contemplative stance…windows would start moving with song.."
Listen, this is why the Boomer generation quit drugs; it's getting too hard to tell the difference any more.
On this night, blue cathedral had a successful airing, certainly, and after thinking about Lockhart's comments I predict the piece will probably die off within five years, doomed to 25 years of exile. Then some young conductor will come along, resurrect it from the ashes of popularity, and stimulate another run. There will be much talk about the good old days when it was still possible to buy 38 Chinese reflex balls on short notice.
Next came Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60, so naturally someone cued the geese and they immediately started honking. This is in four movements (the Beethoven, not the geese): Adagio - Allegro vivace, Adagio, Allegro molto e vivace, and Allegro ma non troppo. It is the last of the classically-influenced and structured works and a fairly straightforward run along the well-established sonata-allegro form while referencing a retro musical nod to Haydn. But there was something missing. The TCO didn't shimmer. It was precise, correct, in tune, and on time, but it was not shinny. In the second movement, the horns got it wrong. Throughout, Lockhart seemed to be immersed in the sound fabric, using a score and resorting to grand gestures – like trying to make himself smaller when he wanted less sound. I looked up the definition of the band and found this: "High school-age students, part of the Music Center's 'Young Artists' Division...." So it's mostly youngsters, led during the summer by Furman violinist and Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra Conductor Thomas Joiner. Here they had one week of rehearsal with a different conductor and may have been a little star struck, so I guess they were doing a pretty good job. That would explain what appeared to be a lot of micro-management by the conductor that, at the time, didn't seem necessary.
On the other hand, the audience – suffering from a little star worship too – was obviously sold on everything the visitor did, clapping after every movement and yelling at the conclusion of both the Higdon and the Beethoven. Lockhart had an effusive hug for startled Concertmaster Heather MacArthur and a boyish smile and a million thanks all around. It made me wonder about what I heard, or if maybe the drug culture had it right after all.
At intermission, there was a ceremonial presentation. One primary staff element at BMC is a volunteer corps that works during the season. That labor force saves BMC about $400K in payroll expenses. Hundreds scattered throughout the audience were asked to raise their hands for thanks and then the volunteer organization presented a check to BMC Artistic Director David Effron for over $131,000, representing collections from all of these volunteers. He doesn’t care to discuss it, but Lockhart donates his services to the BMC every year.
The program concluded with Ottorino Respighi's trusty Pines of Rome, featuring antiphonal horns, down-audience left. It's one of three similar program pieces and the only one to really catch on; it uses a recording of a nightingale at the end of the third movement. This was the composer's preference instead of trusting instruments to make this distinctive sound. There are four movements total, each depicting a Roman vista. The orchestra was fully up to the task, and those antiphonal horns produced a glorious adjunct to the main stage. At its conclusion, the audience stood and cheered. Students lined up backstage to have Lockhart autograph their programs. Many were star-struck and wide-eyed.
Lockhart works about 120 concerts a year, 85 of those with the Boston Pops. That's roughly one concert every three-and-a-half days. Amid that kind of schedule, he takes time to instruct, conduct, and perhaps relax a little here at BMC every year. As BMC President John Candler put it, "He gives back."