‘Pops’ at 125: An icon evolves

There’s plenty of pomp, but also concerns about a slide in ticket sales

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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Horse-drawn carriages will arrive at Symphony Hall on Tuesday night bearing actors dressed as iconic and long-dead Bostonians Isabella Stewart Gardner and Pops founder Henry Lee Higginson. But the costumes, part of a grand celebration to kick off the orchestra’s 125th season, can’t hide the truth: The Boston Pops is facing a very 21st-century problem.

Ticket sales are down, television exposure is scarce, and the orchestra, one of Boston’s grandest traditions, is looking for answers as it kicks off its anniversary season.

Mark Volpe, the managing director who oversees the Pops, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood, blames the struggles largely on the economy. “You’re talking about the worst recession in decades,’’ he said. “Are we concerned and are we trying to be proactive? Yes? Am I panicked? No.’’

But there are reasons beyond the economy for the decline, Volpe concedes. In the golden era of the Pops, there was no Internet or cable TV to compete with. The orchestra could expect a core audience, no matter who was headlining the show. That’s no longer the case. The percentage of seats sold to Pops concerts in Symphony Hall has steadily declined in the past decade, from a peak of 96 percent in 1998 to just 84 percent last year.

In addition, the Pops has cut back its season over that time from 8 1/2 weeks to seven, with the number of concerts per week remaining at five or six. Positions with the BSO and Pops have been eliminated, and salaries have been trimmed. There are some bright spots — revenue from the holiday season Pops concerts have held steady at $5 million in recent years and nine concerts in the upcoming season have sold out — but the sales challenges have left the leaders of “America’s Orchestra,’’ as it was known in Arthur Fiedler’s time, searching for solutions.

On the artistic side, that means trying to balance tradition with the new. The opening night concert is a perfect example, as the Pops will feature 82-year-old trumpeter Doc Severinsen, the former “Tonight Show’’ bandleader who played with legendary conductors Arthur Fiedler and John Williams as well as Keith Lockhart, along with a completely new concept, a singalong driven by projected images of the video game “The Beatles: Rock Band.’’

While college nights have remained staples for more than a century, the Pops will present a new commission this year, a narrated piece called “The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers.’’ Actors Robert De Niro, Ed Harris, and Morgan Freeman will serve as narrators when the work is premiered May 18. Another highlight of the season, which runs through June, is jazz legend Dave Brubeck.

Kim Noltemy, the BSO’s marketing director, said that the challenge is finding concerts that can appeal to everyone. The split, she says, is along generational lines. “Anyone over 50 certainly knows Arthur Fiedler and probably a fair amount about him,’’ she said. “But people in their 30s, when we say Fiedler-styled programming, they don’t know what we’re talking about.’’

Fiedler, of course, was the legendary conductor who led the Pops from 1930 to 1979. He turned the orchestra, founded in 1881 to present a “a lighter kind of music’’ than the BSO, into the most popular symphony in the world. The Pops ruled the radio, TV, and record charts for years and, during Fiedler’s time, the Pops launched the free concerts on the Esplanade that, even today, are broadcast nationally on July 4.

In Fiedler’s day, the Pops barely marketed. Concert dates were simply listed on a board at Symphony Hall and people bought tickets. Today the Pops has no TV deal and must release CDs itself. There is no longer an automatic audience.

“When I came in 1995, the brochure for the Pops was a tear-off one-page that basically had Tuesday through Saturday,’’ said Lockhart. “Now we have name-brand people or strong themes attached with almost every program. We have now an age of audiences that are very specific in their expectations and want to hear a specific thing.’’

That segmenting of the Pops target audience has not pleased everyone or always worked. The organization’s much-touted “Pops on the Edge’’ programming, which brought rockers My Morning Jacket, Cowboy Junkies, and Guster, has had mixed results, attendance-wise. Jazz concerts have sold poorly, filling just 72 percent of the hall last year, while Broadway-themed programs nearly pack the house. This year “Pops on the Edge’’ is no more, although the May 7 concert does feature an unorthodox collaboration with the Latino hip-hop group Ozomatli.

Tony Beadle, who managed the Pops from 1999 to 2006, said he wonders whether the rock themed-programming, designed to attract a younger audience to Symphony Hall, instead pushed Pops audiences away. “When Guster played, Keith said, ‘This isn’t your grandmother’s Boston Pops,’ ’’ Beadle said. “I applaud him for taking that leap, but maybe he took too much of a leap at the beginning. I’m not sure if it was audience building or brand building. One might argue it was almost brand confusion.’’

While there is no way of knowing whether the recession is the root of the sales decline, data collected by the Pops show that the orchestra’s audience is more economically vulnerable than those attending BSO concerts. The average Pops attendee has a household income of $101,000 a year, compared with $188,000 for BSO attendees.

“We have lost a little position in the last two years, and our sense is that when the economy rebounds we’ll see that in ticket sales going forward,’’ Volpe said.

The Boston Pops is not alone in its struggles. The Cincinnati and Pittsburgh Symphony Pops Orchestras are among those facing financial shortfalls, Volpe said. Williams, the former Pops conductor who replaced Fiedler, said that while the challenges the Pops faces are being felt by others, the place of the orchestra in American culture is special. “There’s a connection with a Boston audience that is so filled with pride and loyalty and tradition that is certainly unique in any American city I know about,’’ Williams said. “And that pride and affection has been developed during decades. As popular culture, particularly in music swings further away from the orchestras as a delivery system of music, we can also hope that it will swing back.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

Correction: Because of programming changes, this story reported that Josh Ritter would be appearing in the 125th season of the Boston Pops. Ritter, who is listed in the Pops season brochure as appearing in concerts on May 5 and 6, was replaced by vocalist Idina Menzel after the brochure was distributed.

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