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Arts & Culture

Boston Pops Gives The Audience What It Wants

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You know, they really are trying to put the popular in the Boston Pops. That celebrated orchestra has just launched a feature called "By Popular Demand" in which the audience uses their mobile devices to help program the second half of the concert they're attending.

KEITH LOCKHART: We're going to start this off by asking you to pick your favorite Bugs Bunny musical moment.

(CHEERING)

LOCKHART: Is it A - "Kill The Wabbit," Wagner's famous "Ride Of The Valkyries?" Is it B - the "Wabbit Of Seville," based on Rossini's...

SIMON: The conductor of the Boston Pops, Keith Lockhart, who was celebrating his 20-year season with the orchestra, dreamed up the notion. He joins now from member station WGBH. Maestro, very good to have you back. Thanks very much.

LOCKHART: Thank you very much, Scott, good to talk to you.

SIMON: How does "Popular Demand" work?

LOCKHART: Well, thinking about the adversarial relationship that the live performing arts always seemed to have with modern technology - you know, everybody has gone to the theater and you sternly are warned by the voice of God at the beginning turn off all your mobile devices. But I thought what if there's some way to get them involved in a positive way using the devices? And we came up with a way using a polling platform to allow the audience to come in and basically determine for that hour of the program the destiny of the Boston Pops.

SIMON: You present them with a buffet of music that they might - from which they need to choose how many?

LOCKHART: Basically, the second half consists of 10 categories, say, your favorite movie love theme and then we give them three choices in each category. As you can imagine, it's a mammoth task for the library because it means we have an incredible amount of music out on the stage. And the polling is displayed in real time on the screen above the orchestra, so as they vote, you know, the dark horse candidate emerges, two are going neck and neck; a couple of critical votes come in. And it was like watching election returns and with about the same enthusiasm.

SIMON: I read one account that said that people were dancing in the aisles.

LOCKHART: They were and they're - you know, people are yelling loudly for their candidate. They're booing the winning candidate if they didn't vote for them. They are - they're up and dancing in the aisles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOCKHART: People are clapping along, people are singing every word to some of the things that have lyrics to them, and there was just a celebratory spirit. And it really got me - it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and really got me thinking about maybe one of the elements we're missing in the live performing arts is this feeling of investment on the part of the audience. Certainly, you know, "Dancing With The Stars," "The Voice," "American Idol" - all those have already thought that the way to keep people interested is to give them a voice.

SIMON: Maestro, it's Boston. People know politics in Boston. What's to prevent a small group of activists getting organized and writing in "Gangnam Style"?

LOCKHART: (Laughter) Well, I'm hoping that we have, you know, secure balloting to keep this from happening. We did - we had to give a couple of stern warnings, one of which was only one vote per customer. So you can't bring three mobile phones and stuff the ballot box. And the other was that, as you might expect, the tie goes to the conductor.

SIMON: Oh, OK, and this doesn't come at the expense of new music, does it?

LOCKHART: It doesn't, actually. It - the whole first half of the program was a program that, you know, we very much wanted the audience to hear. You can't do this for every single piece because sometimes, you know, the audience knows pieces that they don't know they know. It's very hard to get somebody to vote on a piece that they may recognize as soon as they hear it but don't know what it's called, for instance. And this is an opportunity - I don't think it's - you know, it doesn't replace the steady diet of concerts that we play during the spring season, but I think it may become a regular feature of our programming. And we may try to expand it and have, you know, your by request, "By Popular Demand" Broadway night and a by request, "By Popular Demand" jazz night. It really did - it really did get us thinking about why it was that people responded so positively and so enthusiastically to a new idea like this, so we're glad we did it.

SIMON: Keith Lockhart, the conductor - 20 years now with the Boston Pops. Thanks so much for being with us.

LOCKHART: It's a pleasure, Scott, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.