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Keith Lockhart


Keith Lockhart


By: Cristina Rouvalis

Keith Lockhart is dragging this morning. His famous baby-blue eyes, the ones that can light up a symphony stage, are slits behind wire-rim glasses. The boyish grin—the one that has earned him the nickname the Zac Efron of the classical musical world—is missing. The animated movements, which can draw together 75 preeminent musicians to create something magical, have given way to a stifled yawn and listless poking at his oatmeal during a breakfast interview. No wonder he’s tired. The maestro has been working on stages 2,000 miles apart, conducting both the world-famous Boston Pops and the Utah Symphony. The one time he can come up for air from the relentless weekly schedule of performances, he has agreed to return to his alma mater to rehearse with the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic. In just a few days, the university orchestra will perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall with Lockhart holding the baton. Could all the work be taking a toll on him? With the campus rehearsal still a few hours away, he drains his cup of coffee. The magazine interview has come to an end. He excuses himself to put in his contact lenses. Soon he will be off to another interview, one for radio this time…

Even as a kid growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Keith Lockhart was a type A perfectionist, enrolled in kindergarten at the age of four. Three years later, he was playing the piano; and, by age 10, he added the clarinet to his musical repertoire. He did so even though neither of his parents were musical role models. Both worked for IBM—his father, Newton, an electrical engineer, his mother, Marilyn, a mathematician.

Support didn’t come from his older classmates, either. Some of the grade-schoolers had trouble understanding why the youngster liked classical music. “Kids sometimes picked on him,” his mom recalls. “He was smart and small and a good one to pick on.”

Once he made it to high school, he became friends with some members of the orchestra and band. But he admits he was still shy. “I was a wallflower,” he says sheepishly. By then, though, there was nothing timid about his approach to music as he assisted the school’s wind ensemble director and was the musical director for two musicals. His mother remembers one instance when he had to deal with a student pianist who didn’t know her part. “He sent her home crying,” Mrs. Lockhart recalls. “He was tough. If his name is associated with it, it has to be right.”

In college at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., Lockhart majored in piano and German and befriended other musicians. “He came home a different person,” his brother, Paul, recalls. “I guess he found himself.” Not just socially. He found out that there were plenty of good pianists out there. His piano teacher, who noted Lockhart’s analytical approach to music, suggested he consider becoming a conductor.

Lockhart followed the advice, heading to Carnegie Mellon to study under conductor Istvan Jaray. After earning his master’s degree in orchestral conducting in 1983 from the College of Fine Arts, he became interim director of orchestral studies and stayed for eight more years. He also became conductor of Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra, a community orchestra. Because he made the repertoire more contemporary, the orchestra members dubbed him the “Prince of Jazz” (because a conductor in his 20s was too young to be the King of Jazz, the musicians kidded him). They gave him a crown, and he took the practical joke one step further, wearing it onstage after one concert. “He was a good sport,” recalls Janet Scandrol, principal second violinist.

Conducting jobs are not exactly commonplace and even less so for conductors in their twenties. But in 1988, at the age of 29, and with enough rejection letters to stuff a desk drawer, he became assistant director of the Akron Symphony. The general manager, Robert Neu, left a year later to join the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops and advocated for Lockhart there. In March 1990, he was invited to audition as associate conductor at Cincinnati. He landed the job, studying under conductor Erich Kunzel, who taught him how to talk to audience members as though they were in his living room. “He is a good ham, but a discreet gentleman ham,” Kunzel says, “not a Las Vegas ham.”

Lockhart, who says he still feels shy inside, admits he comes alive on stage when he is creating something as wondrous as symphonic music. “I found what I was supposed to be doing for a living. Being involved in the creation of something that profound and amazing is the best feeling in the world. It never gets old.”

His work and his flair at the Cincinnati Pops—blending great instrumentals with great showmanship—caught the attention of the Boston Pops, the renowned orchestra that reaches the masses with classical masterpieces and more popular fare. Pops conductor John Williams was stepping down, so for about a year and a half Lockhart was invited to round after round of guest conducting and interviews. “Just when I thought I couldn’t take another round of inquiry, they offered me the job in December of 1994,” he says.

Lockhart would follow some legendary footsteps—Williams, the Oscar-winning composer and conductor; and Williams’ predecessor, Arthur Fiedler, whose 50-year tenure made the Pops famous with hundreds of recordings and free concerts on the Esplanade by the Charles River. The incoming maestro says he never felt intimidated. Perhaps that’s why Boston embraced the 35-year-old’s musical interpretations of the great artists from the moment he stepped on stage. During his first concert on May 10, 1995, The Boston Globe gushed: “Lockhart pulled it all together with limited rehearsal time under high pressure, and on live television. He’s an energetic, alert conductor who’s fun to watch—duded up by Giorgio Armani, Lockhart sported a new silk tux that went everywhere he did.”

Since then, he has made more than 60 television shows with the Boston Pops, including one that aired earlier this year on PBS and included contemporary musical guests Sting, John Mayer, and Steven Tyler. And the charismatic playfulness of the former “Prince of Jazz” frequently appears on stage, too. “We have created a church atmosphere in classical music,” he has been oft quoted, “and I think that sanctimony needs to be dispelled.”

Occasionally, the onetime shy youngster gets a backstage visit from a classmate who invariably asks, “Remember me?” But if Lockhart has to strain his memory, the visitor has more trouble reckoning the charismatic performer in front of them with the skinny, shy kid with a halo of permed hair they remember from the 70s. “They read things about me,” Lockhart says, “rock star conductor, sex symbol conductor, whatever. They think it is hysterical.”

He is on the road to his radio interview with the reporter from the breakfast interview driving him to the studio a few miles away. Except they’re not on the road. The automated parking garage exit lever won’t raise; the machine keeps spitting out the ticket. Lockhart looks at the ticket; then he bounds out of the car to inspect the ticket machine. Suddenly, the maestro is waving his arms like he’s guiding an airplane on a runway. The problem is not the ticket; the car is in the wrong lane. The analytical conductor has solved the problem without losing his cool. …

“To a certain extent we are both misanthropes, affable misanthropes,” says his younger brother, Paul, a historian at Wright State University in Dayton. “Once we are in a crowd, we can see everything that is stupid. It is a liability for both of us. He hides it better than I do.”

Paul marvels at how his brother can nurture talent from musicians. In a way, Paul—who has written scholarly history books—had a firsthand experience with his brother’s conducting prowess. Lockhart convinced him to write more of a David McCullough-style history book that would reach a broader audience. The prodding helped lead to Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army(Collins, 2008), by Paul Douglas Lockhart. The book has received excellent reviews and had brisk sales. Modestly, Lockhart says he believed Paul was a natural storyteller and gifted writer, so he just nudged him a little bit. “That’s what big brothers are for, isn’t it?”

From the quiet halls of academia, Paul looks at his older brother’s celebrity conductor life as a blessing and curse. The Pops are such a beloved Boston institution that cab drivers, window washers, and Red Sox fans stop Lockhart on the street and yell, “Hey, Maestro!” Lockhart basks in the celebrity, knowing that it helps the symphony’s visibility. But his schedule is so hectic that his younger brother says he worries that Lockhart doesn’t have time to always enjoy his life.

Living life in such a fishbowl can’t be easy on anyone’s personal life. “I don’t know if you call being on my third marriage a cost of my personal life?” wonders Lockhart, who is married now to Emiley Zalesky, an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts. “Certainly the fishbowl doesn’t help, because it’s hard to bring someone in your life who understands the amount of exposure you get and, therefore, they get.” But you won’t hear him whining about people pestering him in public the way some celebrities do. “We get good tables at restaurants. I have been to all four Patriot Super Bowls. I have been to World Series games. You can’t filter out the bad attention from the attention. It has to be the entirety of it. It is part of what you are getting paid to put up with.”

Riding along the Pittsburgh streets near campus on the way to his radio interview, he remarks to his breakfast reporter that taking in the familiar sites is like an out-of-body experience. The landmarks remind him of his more carefree days at Carnegie Mellon, when he had time to just hang out with other musicians at the Elbow Room, when every second wasn’t programmed, when time was something you could waste over a cup of pre- Starbucks coffee. He reflects on how he now works from the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed, with an occasional dose of late-night reruns of Family Guy. Sleep deprived, he has been flying constantly between his two jobs, getting odd stares on the plane as he reads a musical score like a book…

“He looks like the eternal kid,” Paul says. “But he takes on way too many things, and that makes you feel your age quicker.”

Lockhart wants no pity. Although he says he loves his two jobs—the more popular fare of the Boston Pops, combined with the serious repertoire of the Utah Symphony— he’s reached a point in his life where he wants more balance in his personal life. 

Not surprisingly, he stepped down last May as musical director of the Utah Symphony after 11 years there. He will return to the orchestra as laureate conductor for three weeks a year during the next few seasons. Stepping down in Utah will free up 14 weeks annually. While he plans to guest conduct overseas, he mostly wants to be at home, spending time with his wife and his five-year-old son. “I want to have a life,” he says.

He sits in front of the microphone at WQED, the Pittsburgh classical music station that plays his Boston Pops CDs. The gray comes out of his face, his blue eyes sparkle, and his movements are crisp and lively as he talks about the enduring appeal of the Boston Pops:

“We are collaborating with Elvis Costello and My Morning Jacket, the indie rock band. It is pretty much the only place you can go to a concert and hear Holst’s ‘The Planets’ on one half of the concert and the indie rock band Guster on the other. We are very proud of that. We are staying more dynamic than most orchestras that are engaged in the crossover pop side.”

He doesn’t need another cup of coffee.

This article originally appeared in Carnegie Mellon TodayIt is reprinted with permission.