Even though Keith Lockhart no longer regularly appears hereabouts, baton in hand, as he did when he was the music director for the Utah Symphony, the journeyman conductor is not exactly resting on his laurels.
Lockhart stays busy enough these days with his regular gig conducting the Boston Pops. In fact, he had 41 concerts in December with the famed orchestra, helping Bostonians celebrate the holidays.
"It was quite a run, but you make hay while the sun shines," said Lockhart, calling from Boston last week, as he braced for a blizzard that was advancing on the city.
He spent the early part of January resting up before he takes the podium Thursday with the Utah Symphony, leading them through Stravinsky's "Pulcinella," selections from Bizet's "Carmen," and a modern composition that features the orchestra's principal harpist, Louise Vickerman.
"It will be good to be back in Utah," Lockhart said. "I love working with the symphony there. And I may have to get in some skiing as well."
Ballet and opera music
Two of the three pieces the symphony will perform were originally written as something other than stand-alone music pieces. "Pulcinella" is actually a ballet, and "Carmen," an opera. However, both have become quite popular as symphony pieces, says Lockhart.
"It could be challenging to play these without the action if the score of theses pieces were less inventive," said Lockhart. "Some things you could never play alone. Look at film scores -- you can usually excerpt something, but you wouldn't want to sit and listen to the whole score. It is meant to accompany something else. But these work well as they are, without the action."
"Pulcinella" was written by 20th-century classical iconoclast Igor Stravinsky in 1920. Ballet Russe maestro Sergei Diaghilev commissioned the work. Pulcinella is a humorous stock character drawn from the commedia dell'arte playlets of the 17th century.
"He (Diaghilev) was expecting Stravinsky to do a polite little transcription of the Italian baroque composer Giovanni Pergolesi, and was said to be totally flabbergasted by what Stravinsky gave him," said Lockhart. "Really, though, Stravinsky was too much of a creative force to be a mere vessel though which Pergolesi's music passed. He used his tunes, but you can certainly tell it is Stravinsky."
This wasn't the first ballet that Stravinsky and Diaghilev collaborated on. The first two are considered some of the most important ballets of the 20th century -- "The Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird," which were written before the start of World War I.
"Diaghilev and Stravinsky had a close relationship already, and Stravinsky had given him these huge hits. So I think he went with Stravinsky on this because you go with your star players. He was interested to see what Stravinsky would do with this kind of assignment. And I don't want to scare anyone off, because this music is delightful. It is tuneful and virtuosic, but it is not in any way the baroque music that Pergolesi wrote. What is amazing, it stands the test of time -- the very thing that makes someone an immortal composer and a true classic."
Toreadors and harps
Georges Bizet's "Carmen" is one of classical music's best-known scores and operas -- a dramatic tale of a gypsy seductress who lays waste to the life of a good man.
"I think the challenge for everyone in the orchestra with something like 'Carmen' is we've all done these pieces so many times. We need to find the way to look at them freshly, and keep them invigorating. But these are great pieces of music at the core. It's just like, no matter how many 'Nutcrackers' you play in your life, the music is good enough to keep you from going crazy. The same is true with the music of 'Carmen.' "
The last piece of the evening was commissioned by the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., to showcase its harpist. Lockhart was personally excited to get to feature the Utah Symphony's own harpist, Vickerman.
"I hired her," he said. "And of the 27 or so people I hired while I was there, she is one I am proudest of. So when the opportunity was floated that I would work with Louise, I was thrilled. And when she suggested this piece and sent me the music, I was even more excited."
"Four Angels for Harp and Orchestra" is a four-movement piece dedicated to archangels representing differing faiths/religious denominations. The 21st-century piece by Mark Adamo was commissioned by the National Symphony.
"The piece has an element of drama that makes it compelling to the listener," said Lockhart. "The harp is really integrated as part of the orchestra. Many harp pieces have the harp right out front, but here, it is much more a part of the orchestra, rather than in front of it. Louise's playing will make it especially wonderful to listen to."