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CLASSICAL MUSIC

Behind the smile

Professional and personal concerns are weighing on the Pops leader

KEITH LOCKHART is crammed into the back seat. On this fall night, the Boston Pops conductor has bummed a ride to the gala honoring James Levine, the maestro hired to revive the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony supporters are streaming into the Fairmont Copley Plaza to raise their glasses to Levine. It's the kind of celebration Lockhart remembers well. Ten years ago, he was the guest of honor, the blue-eyed heir to the legendary Arthur Fiedler. BSO Inc., which runs the Pops, Symphony and Tanglewood, plucked him from obscurity to lead ''America's orchestra."

Marketing director Kim Noltemy, in the passenger seat, tries to make small talk. She asks Lockhart about his weekend plans. He tells her he's going to catch the Sox at Fenway and head to a Patriots game Sunday.

''What about your music?" asks Noltemy.

''Screw my music," Lockhart says, and silence follows.

Though he later says he was joking, the Pops conductor acknowledges it was a tough night. The strain had nothing to do with Levine's coronation, which overshadowed Lockhart's own career-marking moment: a decade leading the Pops. This was personal. Only two months earlier, Lockhart and BSO violinist Lucia Lin announced their separation after seven years of marriage. Their son, Aaron, had just turned 1.

At the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Lockhart heads into a function hall and grabs a drink. He would rather be someplace else.

''If the party's about me, at least I know what I have to do," Lockhart says later. ''I have a very good veneer, but it doesn't always work. Also, that was one of the first social events I went to without Lucy. That felt awkward in itself."

Tomorrow, tens of thousands of Bostonians -- and thanks to national TV coverage, millions of Americans -- will see a more familiar Keith Lockhart taking the podium for the July Fourth gala on the Esplanade. This is the effervescent Lockhart, the showman who a decade ago kicked up his multicolored high-tops on the cover of his first Pops album, ''Runnin' Wild." He was thrilled to lead some of the world's greatest players in one of the world's greatest concert venues, Symphony Hall, and the excitement showed.

Now, at 45, having led more than 800 Pops performances, Lockhart feels the weight of his increasingly demanding schedule and the economic pressures facing the orchestra.

By no means is he standing still. His push to broaden the orchestra's audience led to this year's new series, ''Pops on the Edge," and a pair of sold-out concerts featuring the rock band Guster. The Pops have just put out their second self-released CD. And Lockhart's range -- his ability to conduct everything from traditional classical music to Broadway songs and pop tunes -- continues to impress his bosses.

''I don't know of anyone else who has the ability to do so many styles and do them at such a high professional level," says BSO managing director Mark Volpe.

Still, Pops attendance is slightly down. And at a time when Fiedler was four decades from putting down his stick, Keith Lockhart is restless.

''When I came to town, I had easily marketable things," Lockhart says. ''Youth, a fresh face, somebody who people thought would be an attractive leader. But why do you think great shows on television have limited runs? Because eventually they're not new.

''To be successful, over the long haul, you need to reinvent, if not yourself, then the product you're associated with. Keith Lockhart, by himself, is not going to be new and interesting forever."

They have dressed him up in so many ways. Keith in a kilt, in leather pants, in a sophisticated turtleneck. RCA had him jump, tux and all, into a swimming pool for an album cover. The Pops contemplated asking him to take acting lessons. The orchestra's management, feeling the 34-year-old ''Evening at Pops" TV show had gone flat, tried to revive the program last year with a series of up-close-and-personal segments. Then Fidelity Investments yanked its funding. No new shows are being produced.

''What do you have to be to be conductor of the Pops?" asks longtime producer Bill Cosel, in Lockhart's defense. ''Are you supposed to be a best supporting actor nominee? Arthur Fiedler would say, 'Drop dead.' "

Of course, Fiedler, the pioneering Pops conductor, took over the orchestra in 1930, a time when he faced virtually no competition on the entertainment landscape.

This was before the megaplex, Clear Channel, and even television. Over half a century, Fiedler's orchestra sold more than 50 million albums, and he became a white-mustached icon of 20th-century American music.

Though still in college during Fiedler's final days, Lockhart has seen his career defined by his link to the Pops legend. Concert programs still note that Lockhart was 35 when he was hired, ''the same age as Arthur Fiedler at the time of his appointment."

''He's up against a tough situation," says Fiedler's son Peter, the interim general manager at WBUR-FM. ''My father, whatever the magic he had, it was one of those things of time and place. He was more than a conductor, he was part of Boston. Keith hasn't really made love to Boston in that respect."

Fiedler's daughter Johanna, an author and the longtime former press representative at Levine's Metropolitan Opera, is less forgiving. She says Lockhart is not talented enough to lead the Pops and has failed to develop a repertoire of classical music in the way her father did.

''With another twist of fate," she says, ''he would have been a high school band leader."

Lockhart has a complicated view of Arthur Fiedler. He dismisses Johanna -- ''the only link she has to the Boston Pops is her last name" -- but agrees that her father did put the orchestra on the map. Fiedler, along with Leonard Bernstein, gave the country its best taste of classical music on television.

Fiedler also should have retired, Lockhart says. He died in 1979 while still Pops conductor.

''He was immensely popular, and he was in a way a victim of that popularity," says Lockhart. ''That happens. If you become such an institution it's hard to break out. You kind of jail yourself. Everyone talks about the 50-year career. Well, 50 years is too long anywhere, no matter what you have to offer.

''It's something I don't plan."

So what does he plan?

Even those closest to Lockhart don't know. Will he stay with the Pops and maintain his place as one of the country's best-known conductors? Or will he devote himself to more artistically respected symphonic music? Lockhart conducts that repertoire in Salt Lake City, though with a fraction of the attention he gets in Boston.

He has been music director of the Utah Symphony, an orchestra with 83 players and a $17 million budget, for seven years. There, he can become the ''serious" conductor doing Dvorak, Brahms, and Mahler. But can Lockhart continue to do both jobs? For now, yes. Lockhart concedes, though, that he could not lead a more prestigious, better-funded symphony and remain with the Pops.

The Pops are waiting to hear from Lockhart about his future.

''In a lot of ways, people want things that they're not always entirely suitable for," says Pops manager Tony Beadle. ''And I'm not saying that Keith is not suitable for a symphonic career. He is. But he's so suitable for what he does here."

That's the frustrating reality for the BSO's leaders, who say they want Lockhart to remain with the Pops. Even at this difficult time for US orchestras, when most have stopped recording, the Pops sold more than 25,000 copies of its self-released Christmas album, ''Sleigh Ride." This season, the Pops have also been recovering some at the box office, in part by spending more money on headlining artists.

The orchestra's concerts with Guster ended with 20-somethings in baggy shorts -- far from the usual Pops crowd -- dancing in the aisles. ''It's one of those things where you try something and it comes out exactly the way you want it to," says Lockhart. ''I have never heard screaming like that at Symphony Hall."

BSO management also points to Lockhart's winning stage presence. While Levine, with his sore back, sits in a chair when conducting the BSO, the trim and stylish Lockhart moves fluidly, whether jumping into the air to punctuate the crashing climax of a rock song or swirling his arms gracefully to coax a lush movement out of the strings during a Samuel Barber piece.

Lockhart says he doesn't think much about his musical destiny or strategize about his career. The future is the next concert.

His path has never been predictable. Rather than serve as an assistant conductor in an orchestra after college, Lockhart spent his first five years teaching music at Carnegie Mellon University. He didn't get his first orchestra job until the Akron Symphony hired him as an assistant conductor in 1988. Two years later, the Cincinnati Symphony hired Lockhart for the same position. The BSO's librarian, a former Cincinnati staffer, recommended Lockhart to the Pops when John Williams -- the film score composer who replaced Fiedler -- announced he would leave. On February 7, 1995, Lockhart signed his contract.

The Pops job would be his biggest break. It would also become his greatest liability.

Life had changed. That, Lockhart realized quickly.

At one public appearance, too many people crammed into the room for autographs, knocking over his table. He became a target of gossip columnists, romantically linked to the head of a local neighborhood group, seen in a passionate embrace with another woman at Logan airport.

''The worst thing was I was in California when I was spotted doing that," says Lockhart.

Only his marriage to Lin, in 1996, could put those rumors to rest. The moratorium ended with the separation last fall. The couple released a statement asking for privacy. Instead, Lockhart heard about how Lin had kicked him out for indiscretions. Oboist Blair Tindall, in her new book, ''Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music," wrote of a one-night stand she says she had with Lockhart while he was married.

''I can't have a cup of coffee with anybody without being told I'm sleeping with them," he says. ''And it's absurd and hurtful and so profoundly stupid. There's an element of my life I've just lost."

He won't say much about the breakup with Lin, which is moving toward a divorce settlement. (She declined, through a BSO spokesman, to comment.) He says he asked for the separation, simply because they had grown apart. Lin remains with their son, Aaron, now almost 2, in the South End townhouse the family shared. While separated, Lockhart has been staying in a friend's vacant Beacon Hill apartment.

He has been seeing a woman from Utah, Melinda Gomez, a former model who makes designer handbags. She came to Boston in May for opening night at the Pops, sitting at Lockhart's table at the postconcert party.

''It's no secret I've had personal problems," Lockhart says. ''I am dating, albeit somewhat cautiously. It's not at all inappropriate that I'm going to start putting my toe back in the water. But my big emotional trauma and goal is to work out the nature of my ongoing relationship with my son, and my son's mother. That takes precedence over everything."

His career, though, can be all-consuming. Lockhart sleeps five hours a night. When his parents visit, they barely see him for meals. He spends much of his time holed up in his room studying scores. The intensity of the job isn't all he shares with Fiedler. Like the late conductor, Lockhart longs to be known for more than ''lite" music. He calls his career ''unique," as it combines full-time Pops and Utah gigs. No music director has done both at a high-profile level.

''We talked about it before he took the Pops job," says Hugh Kaylor, Lockhart's former manager. ''I knew he wanted these other things, that he wanted to do serious work. We just felt it was a risk well worth taking. The Boston Pops is a plum job. It's the kind of job you can never say no to."

Ten years ago, during contract negotiations, Lockhart tried to make sure he didn't become the next Lawrence Welk. He asked for a clause prohibiting him from playing Pops concerts with anyone other than the Boston Pops. It was a strange decision for a young conductor about to take his first high-profile gig. After all, in the world of the modern-day maestro, jet-setting conductors cash in by cramming high-paying guest spots into off weeks.

Lockhart, though, felt it was more important to deliver a message to major orchestras.

''You can't take the easy way out," says Lockhart. ''You can't just say, 'We want him because he'll sell our tickets to people who have seen him on TV.' You gotta want me for some reason other than that."

The trouble is that since Lockhart scored the Pops job, he has watched as other conductors his age pass him by.

Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and David Robertson, music director of the Saint Louis Symphony, have led the major orchestras in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Marin Alsop and Alan Gilbert have also appeared with most of the country's most prominent symphonies.

Lockhart has been stuck on the B-circuit. He does Toronto, Columbus, Edmonton. When the Chicago Symphony calls, it is to ask him to play with its Civic Orchestra, a training group for aspiring young musicians.

''We know Keith Lockhart first and foremost as the Boston Pops," says Deborah Card, president of the Chicago Symphony. ''If he wants to be able to do both, he's going to have to work harder at branding himself at both."

Card has never seen Lockhart do ''Tosca," which he conducted for Boston Lyric Opera last year. She has also never heard him in Salt Lake City, where Lockhart leads the Utah Symphony in works he can't do in Boston. When he conducts Mahler -- he recently did Symphony No. 2 in Utah -- his work week is not measurably different than Levine's in Symphony Hall.

The financial rewards in Salt Lake City are less than those in Boston. He makes $245,000 a year, less than half of his Pops salary, which was $608,837 in the most recent year available. In Utah, though, he doesn't have to chat up the crowd. He needn't maintain a tattooed smile while conducting Three Dog Night's ''Shambala." He can get four rehearsals for one program, not the single run-through allowed for each Pops series.

''Being music director of a traditional symphonic ensemble is like being executive chef in a great restaurant," Lockhart says. ''You work on process, on presentation, you work on fine points of cuisine. Being conductor of the Boston Pops is more like being a really, really good short-order cook."

What the two jobs share with the rest of the orchestra world is the struggle to expand the audience. Nationally, symphony ticket sales have been down roughly 10 percent since 2000. The Pops have not been immune. For most of his tenure, Lockhart kept Symphony Hall, on average, at 92 percent capacity. Last year, that fell to 88 percent. (The latter figure is the same for Levine's ticket sales during his just-completed first year.)

In Utah, though, attendance has dropped from a high of 75,000 in 2000 to about 65,000. On an average night, the hall is just over 70 percent full. Empty seats have been coupled with a controversial merger of the symphony and Utah Opera, and the new organization has lost about $3.4 million in the last two years.

Lockhart also found himself battered during a contract negotiation, with players growing angry for what they said was a lack of support from their music director. Lockhart has heard the complaints, he says, sipping a smoothie in the den of his sparsely decorated home in Salt Lake City.

The players don't understand, Lockhart says. They wanted some kind of public show of support. Instead, he worked behind closed doors to persuade bean-counting board members not to reduce salaries and cut players.

If he made a mistake, Lockhart says, it was in trying at all.

''When I was studying 25 years ago, in Aspen, I had a conducting teacher, Murry Sidlin, who said, 'When there's a labor dispute in an orchestra, get on the first plane and go as far away as you can until it is solved,' " says Lockhart. ''I never really understood the wisdom of that."

On the Symphony Hall podium, Keith Lockhart is as smooth as a late-night talk show host. He's playing one of the many Pops concerts hosted for a local college. The University of Massachusetts is celebrating the installation of president Jack M. Wilson.

The Pops play a set with Rockapella, a group of pitch-perfect crooners who could pass as an aging, yuppified version of 'N Sync. For the traditional finale of ''The Stars and Stripes Forever," Lockhart calls Wilson and Senator Ted Kennedy, the other guest of honor, onto the stage. They will guest conduct together.

Hamming it up, Lockhart positions the men on the podium.

''I'm not quite sure how to divide duties," Lockhart says. ''I don't know if either of you share power well."

Laughter fills the hall.

''My question would be which of you is on the left," he says, and after neither makes a move to the podium: ''This is not a time for a filibuster."

More chuckles.

A few hours later, Lockhart sits at Brasserie Jo. He's slicing into a medium rare steak. He has traded his tux for jeans. He is tired. Over the last two weeks, Lockhart has conducted Mahler in Utah, done several recording sessions, led a number of Pops concerts, and worked with a group of high school musicians in Symphony Hall. He's also hung out with Aaron, taking him to the New England Aquarium.

Brasserie Jo is one of the few places serving near Symphony Hall after a show, so the place is packed with UMass types. Lockhart comes here at least twice a week. As he chews, strangers approach. A leader of the university band stops by to praise the performance. Another man, red-faced and loud, tells Lockhart how much he loved Rockapella, the night's headliner. Only he calls the group ''Acapulco."

Even this late, Lockhart can't shoo them away. He is the leader of the country's most famous orchestra, his still boyish face one of the most recognizable in the city. He keeps up the smile. It is only when the final fan walks away that Lockhart lets a hint of weariness cut into his perpetual state of public cheer.

''Sometimes," he says, ''my face gets tired."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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