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Pops: from light to lite

Arthur Fiedler's ideal of sharing classics in a relaxed setting? Too heavy for today's tastes.

June 19, 2005|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Was classical music always scary? Dark, imposing, forbiddingly Teutonic -- with no clapping, no talking and definitely no drinking?

It wasn't, and in some places it still isn't. In the American classical world almost from the start -- running parallel to wintertime concerts grounded in Beethoven and Brahms -- summer "pops" series have brought various kinds of light or popular music to a more casual crowd sitting around little tables and sipping champagne or gazing up from blankets spread on the grass.

Depending on the region and the era, pops concerts have served as a genteel way for audiences to let their hair down in the balmy night air, as a musical cocktail party or an informal outdoor schoolhouse. Typically, they've offered Strauss waltzes, Rossini overtures, Wagner preludes, patriotic works such as Ives' Variations on "America" and pictorial pieces such as "The Pines of Rome" that show off the orchestra in all its glory.

But around the country, that tradition has changed considerably since its mid-20th century heyday. Seventy-five years after Arthur Fielder took over the Boston Pops and turned it into the most famous and influential series of its kind, pops concerts are very different.

Increasingly, in Boston and elsewhere, pops means Rockapella, medleys of TV themes, Doc Severinsen, celebrity crooners doing music from last year's blockbuster movie. It means what Richard Dyer, the Boston Globe's classical music critic since 1975, calls "the hits of 25 or 30 years ago -- the favorites of the target audience, when young."

On the current Boston Pops series, just a few concerts offer classical music. The only ones built around light classics are the 75th-anniversary concerts dedicated to Arthur Fiedler.

But earlier Boston concerts -- along with the radio and television broadcasts that beamed them across the country -- helped give many Americans exposure to music they might otherwise have missed.

Dyer, who comes from a military family, is one of those people. "I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, and for me and my family classical music meant the Boston Pops," he says.

He's not alone: Leonard Bernstein spoke of how he decided to become a conductor while watching Fiedler conduct the Pops in Wagner's overture to "Die Meistersinger."

Still, far fewer people today embrace the pops ideal.

"I once wrote a paper where I said that the invention of the pops concert was the worst thing that had ever happened," says John Mauceri, a longtime Bernstein associate and the conductor since 1991 of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, which he will lead at the Bowl's season opener Friday in a concert also featuring baritone Josh Groban, violinist Joshua Bell and a tribute to Frank Sinatra with Quincy Jones.

The reason behind his distaste, Mauceri says, was that the pops concept "implied something that was so dangerous" -- that some classical music is popular and fun and other classical music is important but dull. "At one point, a record label had something called Classics for Pleasure," he says. "Does that mean that all the others are classics for pain?"

Artistic objections, however, are not the primary reason the pops are in a period of decided, if uneasy, transition.

"There's real financial pressure that forces us to rethink it," says Mark Volpe, who oversees both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. "The challenge is: Can pops be all things to all people? I don't think it can be, and we're still grappling with that."

European roots

The idea of pops in America originated in 1885 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Music Hall Promenade Concerts. Based on Viennese and Berliner models, these programs offered food and drink, and tables and chairs instead of church-like pews, along with "light classics of the best class." (William Weber, a historian at Cal State Long Beach, says the earliest pops-like concerts were probably in 1820s Paris, which means they predate slightly our current idea of "serious" classical music.)

Then, in 1930, Arthur Fiedler, a 35-year-old BSO violist who had put on his own outdoor series to get the organization's attention, took over the Pops and established a model that many other orchestras went on to follow.

The Boston Pops became the most-recorded U.S. orchestra ever, and the ensemble's RCA Victor albums clearly differentiated its offerings from the more conventional classics waxed by the BSO. Posing for the album covers, Fiedler went for whimsical ethnicity (dressed as a green leprechaun for an Irish-themed collection), folksy charm (on horseback, waving hat in the air, for "The Pops Goes West") or European-style drollery (in bullfighter's uniform for the Spanish-themed "Fiedler Ole"). These LPs make West Coast jazz records of the period look sober.

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