- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007


Tchaikovsky. John Philip Sousa. Cowboy Junkies? The venerable Boston Pops orchestra, best known for playing Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” during Fourth of July festivities on Boston’s Esplanade, is trying to shake off its stodgy image to attract a younger, bigger audience.

This season, the Pops welcomed rocker Ben Folds to its opener and has plans to showcase the Cowboy Junkies later this summer in its EdgeFest series. The symphony also is staging its own “American Idol”-like contest, POPSearch 2007, on YouTube.

The effort is aimed at helping the Pops stay ahead of audience attrition, when seats are left open by regular symphony-goers who retire and move away or simply join the audience before that big orchestra in the sky.

Mr. Folds, the youthful singer-songwriter best known as the frontman and pianist of Ben Folds Five, said he welcomed the chance to play with the Pops — although he wouldn’t promise to wear a tuxedo.

“Your little band’s awesome,” he joked with conductor Keith Lockhart before opening night. “They rock. They’ve got a good beat. They’re going places. I see big things in their future.”

Of course, bringing in a new brand of music may also bring in a new brand of fan.

A fight broke out on opening night between two men seated in the balcony while the orchestra performed music from the movie “Gigi.” The fisticuffs — provoked when one fan said the other would not keep quiet — drew national attention for the Pops, even prompting late-night host Jay Leno to joke about the brawl.

“Of course we were surprised by what happened and none too pleased, but I never thought it would be a national story. I mean I almost fainted when I saw it on the ‘Today Show,’ ” says Kim Noltemy, the director of sales, marketing and communications for the Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Despite the melee, the Pops says it has no plans to change its programming and will continue to shake things up with its third annual EdgeFest program, bringing in artists such as singer-songwriter M. Ward and presenting the world premiere of works by two young composers the Pops describes as “creating orchestral music for the ITunes generation.”

During a separate JazzFest series, the symphony’s hallowed halls will be filled with the sounds of pianist Chick Corea, vocalist Dianne Reeves and vibraphonist Gary Burton in the main auditorium. Following the concerts, audience members have the option of grooving to the sounds of student musicians from the Berklee College of Music in the post-concert Jazz Cafe.

Tom Riley, the vice president of external affairs at Berklee, says the Pops is trying to spice things up while also trying to please those who remember the days of legendary conductor Arthur Fiedler, who died in 1979.

“Forty and 50 years ago in Fiedler’s time, it was a young audience, but they aged with him, so I think Lockhart’s saying, ‘let’s bring it back,’ ” Mr. Riley says.

Orchestras across the country are trying to reach new audiences. Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, travels the country visiting orchestras and has seen a growth among young people in the audience. The Brooklyn Philharmonic, like the Pops, has actively sought to expand its audiences with modern works and performances by artists such as the transgendered singer Antony and the Johnsons.

In Boston, the new shows are a far cry from the performance of July 11, 1885, when members of the Boston Symphony first delivered a summer program of light music in a cafe-style setting.

The name Pops came from popular music, as compared with symphonic music, and was first used during the 1900 season. The term Boston Pops Orchestra was first used in July 1935 for the ensemble’s debut recording sessions under Mr. Fiedler.

Mr. Lockhart likes to joke that his musicians are the originals when it comes to “pop” music. His version of POPSearch will culminate with the winner singing with the orchestra at its traditional Fourth of July concert.

The conductor says the contest isn’t just about luring younger fans.

“Our grand champion last year was 62 years old or something like that,” Mr. Lockhart says. “I think it’s more about connecting with the community in ways that current pop culture connects with the community.”

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