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Pops: from light to lite

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

At other times, Fielder would enlist guest stars (a brooding Chet Atkins for a record that included “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”) or offer a medley of Beatles hits scored for orchestra. It didn’t hurt that these albums were produced as the hi-fi stereo was coming into middle-class homes.

The Boston repertory wasn’t the Pops’ only striking element. Its touring season could have been put together by Whitman: The Pops musicians played on beaches and football fields, in town squares and high schools.

The liner notes for “More Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music” capture the period’s tone, somewhere between approachable and patronizing: “Find the names of melodies you have heard, and even hummed for years, and you will probably discover that you have been enjoying more classical music than you ever thought.” It’s the tone of a culture at once high-minded and conventional -- middlebrow. Pops seems to have one foot in that culture, the other in a playful, white-tuxedoed nostalgia.

“It was never cool,” says Mauceri, “and never serious. What is that? It feels like some Midwestern thing you’d see at a fair.”

Cool or not, in Fiedler’s heyday the programs typically had three parts: a section of light classical music; a classical concerto, often played by a rising young soloist; and a gimmicky conclusion that might include arrangements of Broadway numbers, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” or a tribute to “Saturday Night Fever.” Maybe all three.

TV changes the emphasis

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That final section has become what pops means in most places today, including Boston. Now, says Dyer, “the tail is wagging the dog.”

“For Mr. Fiedler, the whole point of the novelty material was as a bit of candy or dessert after a light menu,” he says. But the emphasis changed when the Pops’ concerts, or at least their last thirds, were televised starting in 1969.

“That was a two-edged sword: The TV shows were terrific, but they didn’t represent what the Pops were about night after night.” Television also reinforced an emphasis on celebrity.

Another thing that’s changed is the very “popular music” that the Pops has tried, now as then, to incorporate into its performances. In the ‘50s, that music could be big band, or orchestral jazz by Gershwin or Ellington, or arrangements of show tunes that often came from musicals playing that very week on the Great White Way. In previous decades, it was European dance music: Viennese waltzes, Polish mazurkas, Hungarian czardas.

But by the ‘60s, pop culture had famously undergone a sea change.

“Rock ‘n’ roll just doesn’t translate into orchestral settings,” says Mauceri, who’s attempted that transformation with Madonna’s “Material Girl” and by conducting orchestras behind Brian Wilson and Smashing Pumpkins. “The Beatles’ music probably never did. A lot of popular music of the past has. But rock ‘n’ roll, because of the limited amount of chords and the fact that it has very little counterpoint -- it’s hard to develop it, to move it past where it really seems to live. Jazz seems to be adaptable. But if hip-hop is the most popular music now, that’s hard to play.”

Pops series were faced with an awkward choice: trying to incorporate the music “the kids” were listening to and risking looking silly, or sticking with reliable, not-exactly-classical figures such as Marvin Hamlisch, Neil Sedaka, Kenny Rogers and ‘60s nostalgia-peddler Judy Collins, who can make even the middle-aged feel they’re too young to show up at a concert. Either way, pops became perhaps the only area of popular culture without the “edge” that’s come to define pop culture.

Volpe says pops seasons -- after years of out-earning and even financing classical series -- are struggling to hold on to their artistic mission and their aging audiences. The average age for Boston Pops patrons is now 51, just four years younger than the average BSO patron.

Part of the challenge, he says, is that there’s far more competition for the entertainment dollar, especially with the expansion of sports teams and arts centers. “If you want something pop, there are a million venues.”

And because of the need to compete with the louder noise of contemporary entertainment, Boston seeks out publicity-driven events: kicking off the first football season after Sept. 11 by doing a halftime show on a Florida beach, inviting former General Electric CEO Jack Welch to conduct “Stars and Stripes Forever,” playing while Bono belted out uplift at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Last week, the Pops hosted Daniel Rodriguez, a former New York City police officer whose singing career took off after the World Trade Center attacks.

Recalls Volpe: “It used to be, in the Fiedler days, they’d just announce a season, with almost no programming,” and it would sell out rapidly. “Pops used to be a cash cow, all over the country.”

Mauceri believes the very name “pops” became dated quickly. “Because Fiedler looked like the kind of guy you might call Pops -- the old guy who ran the drugstore.”

He’s tried to avoid those associations. “I have steadfastly refused to do pops concerts at the Bowl,” he says. “I’ve always objected to that word: It’s hard to have what you call a pops concert with ‘Atmospheres’ by Gyorgy Ligeti or ‘The Nixon Dances’ by John Adams,” both of which he’s done at the Bowl.

Rachael Worby, who conducts the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, says it’s time to find a new word. She has even less nostalgia than Mauceri. What frustrates her is a tradition that’s turned pops into “a ghetto” for light classical music.

“The word ‘pops,’ for me, derives from the word ‘popular,’ ” she says. “And I can make any piece of music popular at the moment it’s being heard,” from old standbys such as Broadway show tunes to the Minimalist Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica Celestis.” She resents the implication that often attaches to pops concerts, that they’re about “introductory” repertory designed to bring a young or untutored audience to serious music.

“I don’t believe in playing an orchestral version of something that’s second-rate,” says Worby, who was music director of the Young People’s Concerts at Carnegie Hall for 12 years. “Nobody wants to be pandered to that way.

“The impetus behind the creation of most pops series,” she says, “remains twofold: create new audiences and generate more income. As it turns out, though, the people who attend the pops series attend the pops series,” with little crossover with the Pasadena Symphony. The BSO reports roughly a 10% overlap.

With that baggage, you’d guess serious conductors would avoid pops programs altogether. But Worby thinks the format can still work, and her group’s current season at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge follows the old model pretty closely: cabaret, “Guys and Dolls,” Russian-flavored repertory from Tchaikovsky to “Dr. Zhivago.”

There are unconventional touches, though: The “Mozart, McCartney and More!” concerts this Friday and Saturday will include the not-so-fizzy Gustav Mahler. “I’m in the process,” Worby says, “of changing the definition.”

In some places, of course, the definition hasn’t changed. Kenneth Marcus, a historian who has researched pops in Southern California, points out that several small-town groups, including the San Marino-based California Philharmonic Orchestra, hew to the old model of Viennese light classics.

“Of the groups I surveyed,” says Marcus, who teaches at the University of La Verne, “only one has left classical music behind. And Fiedler was always a model for the conductors I spoke with, even at the Long Beach Symphony Pops, where they don’t play classical music.”

These groups respected Fiedler as “a very serious classical musician, who didn’t take himself too seriously and who was not afraid to appear foolish in order to prove a point.”

Light classics abandoned

When people look back at the old-school pops era, what they often lament is the disappearance of the light classics repertoire, which has suffered from the coming (and going) of TV; the triumph of celebrity, film music and pop nostalgia; and the rise of younger conductors.

From the beginning of the pops in Europe, orchestral overtures or movements from tuneful scores -- eventually including Ravel’s “La Valse,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol” -- were the format’s bread and butter.

But now, the light classics seem like a child who, caught in a custody battle, trusted the wrong parent: These pieces were first shunted off into pops series, but when the pops soured on classical music, light or otherwise, they were left without a home.

That abandonment dismays Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. In an essay last year in the league’s Symphony magazine, he documented the vanishing of work by Chabrier, Smetana, Respighi and others. “We’ve narrowed its potential audience,” he wrote of classical music, “because we have reduced its ability to provide pleasure to the listener.”

When these pieces went into pops series, “thus began the divide between ‘serious’ concerts and pops repertoire,” he went on, “a divide that I believe is unnatural and unhealthy. These light classical works somehow found their image tarnished, their value as art questioned.”

Fogel’s essay compared U.S. orchestral programs from the early 1920s with those in every decade through the 2000-01 season and found the proportion of light classics peaking in 1940-41, then plummeting during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Those decades, he noted, were the heyday of pops series, which still played light music. “There was certainly a correlation,” he wrote, “and probably a cause-and-effect relationship, between the rise in national visibility of the Boston Pops Orchestra and Arthur Fiedler and the shrinkage of this repertoire on main-series concerts across the country.”

Part of the problem, he said, was that musicians and critics dismissed more diverting fare as it moved on to pops seasons, thus discouraging its programming.

In fact, a just-published Columbia University survey, “The Classical Music Critics,” reveals that pops is the category critics like writing about least.

The loss, Fogel said in an e-mail, is not just of engaging repertory. “Appealing, tuneful, rhythmically attractive music, dressed in vivid orchestral colors, clearly has an attraction to people who are trying this art form out, and its absence from the repertoire is, I think, a missed opportunity."At least one music critic, Dyer, admits pangs of nostalgia for the time when the Boston Pops performed more light classics, or at least the midcentury American version of them.

“I grew up with ‘The Syncopated Clock’ and ‘Blue Tango,’ and I actually thought that was classical music,” he says.

“Of course I regret the shift away from what the orchestra does best, from what it was famous for. But I recognize that you can’t play ‘The Syncopated Clock’ six nights a week for 50 years and hope people will continue to show up.”

What will make people show up? Volpe is giving the issue much thought. But he’s not convinced everyone is. “I’m concerned,” he says, “that people aren’t doing enough thinking about it.”

To Volpe, the structural difficulties in the pops world go beyond audiences’ disaffection with the standard repertoire. Another issue is the anonymity of pops conductors: Although Mauceri and the Boston Pops’ Keith Lockhart are both well-known, he says, “Name another pops conductor under 75.”

When the BSO was looking for a new conductor, he says, there were plenty of interesting candidates. “But if Mauceri or Keith is hit by a bus, the list is not nearly as long. There are little local series, but few conductors who have national profiles or media profiles, or big audiences.”

One of those big-name pops conductors is film composer John Williams, who led the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993.

“When Williams took over,” says historian Marcus, “that influenced pops orchestras all over the country. It showed American pops coming into its own, getting away from the European model a little bit,” through movie music.

Mauceri says the future may include even more film music: “For 75 years now, there has been a direct line of continuous writing for orchestra, in a very popular art form.”

There’s also video-game music. On July 6 at the Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a full choir will give a concert devoted entirely to this music, including excerpts from the soundtracks of Halo and Tomb Raider. Marcus expects the move away from Europe to continue in addition as styles associated with American ethnic groups -- jazz, gospel, Latin music -- grow more prominent in pops series, especially with venues such as the Bowl courting diverse concertgoers.

“Audiences today listen to rap and house music,” Marcus says.

“When they get older, that’s gonna be their oldies.”

In the history of the pops, from 1820s Paris to 21st century America, stranger things have happened.

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Contact Scott Timberg at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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