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The Boston Pops was founded in 1885 as a second, popular identity of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), founded four years earlier. Consisting primarily of musicians from the BSO, although generally not the first-chair players, the orchestra performs a Spring season of popular music and a holiday program in December, the BSO schedule on break at those times. For the Pops, the seating on the floor of Symphony Hall is reconfigured from auditorium seating to banquet/cafe seating. In addition the Pops also plays an annual concert at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade every Fourth of July. Identified with its long-time director Arthur Fiedler, in the past the orchestra has recorded extensively, made frequent tours, and appeared regularly on television. The Pops Spring and Holiday seasons allowed the BSO to become one of the first American orchestras to provide year-round employment for its musicians.
The current Music Director of the Boston Pops Orchestra is Keith Lockhart.
In 1881, Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wrote of his wish to present in Boston "concerts of a lighter kind of music." The Boston Pops Orchestra was founded to present this kind of music to the public, with the first concert performed in 1885. Called the "Promenade Concerts" until 1900, these performances combined light classical music, tunes from the current hits of the musical theater, and an occasional novelty number. Allowing for some changes of taste over the course of a century, the early programs were remarkably similar to the Boston Pops programs of today.
The Boston Pops Orchestra had seventeen conductors before 1930, when Arthur Fiedler began a fifty-year tenure as the Pops conductor. Under Fiedler's direction the orchestra's popularity spread far beyond the city of Boston through recordings, radio and television. Unhappy with the reputation of classical music as being solely for affluent concert goers, Fiedler made efforts to bring classical music to a wider audience. He instituted a series of free concerts at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, a public park beside the Charles River. Fiedler insisted that the Pops Orchestra play popular music as well as well-known classical pieces, opening up a new niche of popular symphonic music. Of the many musical pieces created for the orchestra, the Pops' most identifiable works were the colorful novelty numbers composed by Fiedler's close friend Leroy Anderson, including "Sleigh Ride", "The Typewriter" and many others.
Under Fiedler's direction, the Boston Pops sold more commercial recordings than any other orchestra in the world, with total sales of albums, singles, tapes, and cassettes exceeding $50 million. The orchestra's first recordings were made in July 1935 for RCA Victor, including the first complete recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The Pops made their first high fidelity recording on June 20, 1947, of Gaîté Parisienne (based on the music of Jacques Offenbach), and recorded the same music seven years later in stereophonic sound, their first venture in multitrack recording.
Fiedler is also credited with having begun the annual tradition of the Fourth of July Pops concert and fireworks display on the Esplanade, one of the best-attended Independence Day celebrations in the country with estimated crowds of 200,000–500,000 people. Also during Fiedler's tenure, the Pops and local public television station WGBH developed a series of weekly televised broadcasts recorded during the Pops' regular season in Symphony Hall, Evening at Pops.
The list of artist-performers during this period includes world-class soloists and contains some historic and legendary names who performed on the many Boston Pops tours that went to hundreds of cities across the country throughout the 1950s through the '70s. Some shows have holiday–oriented themes, such as Christmas shows featuring performers such as Jonathan Meath, who appeared as Santa with the Boston Pops for ten shows during 2008–2009.
After Fiedler's death in 1979, he was succeeded as conductor of the Boston Pops by the noted film composer John Williams. Williams continued the Pops' tradition of bringing classical music to a wider audiences, initiating the annual "Pops-on-the-Heights" concerts at Boston College and adding his own library of well-known film scores (including Star Wars and Indiana Jones) to the orchestra's repertoire.
Keith Lockhart assumed the post of principal Pops conductor in 1995. Lockhart continues to conduct the Boston Pops today, adding a touch of flamboyance and a flair for the dramatic to his performances. Williams remains the Laureate Conductor of the Pops and conducts a week of Pops concerts most years. Lockhart brought in numerous pop-music acts to play with the orchestra, including Ben Folds, Rockapella, Guster, My Morning Jacket, Aimee Mann, Kelly Clarkson and Elvis Costello.
POPSearch is the Boston Pops' nationwide talent competition that offers amateur singers the chance to perform with the orchestra at Boston's Fourth of July Extravaganza, as well as on the orchestra's national tour. The winner also receives a cash prize. The American Idol–style competition has expanded into a nationwide contest through video submissions on YouTube and voting through BostonPops.org.
The POPSearch 2007 grand champion Maria Perry won $5,000 and performed with the Boston Pops on July 3 and 4 in the annual July 4 Extravaganza seen by a live audience of almost a half-million people on the Charles River Esplanade and several million more on WBZ-TV.
Frances Botelho-Hoeg, an elementary school principal from Kingston, Massachusetts, was knocked out in the second round of the inaugural POPSearch, but returned in 2005 to sweep the competition.
Tracy Silva, a mother of two from Taunton, Mass., and van driver for special needs children, won the inaugural POPSearch contest in 2004. Maria Perry won in 2007.
In early spring of 2008, Keith Lockhart announced "Boston Pops High School Sing-Off A Best of Broadway Challenge," the first-ever Boston Pops musical theater competition for Massachusetts High school students. Students from high schools throughout the state of Massachusetts were encouraged to submit audition videos of musical theater vocal works for solo, duet, trio, quartet, or quintet to the Boston Pops before May 9, 2008. The winner was featured in the Boston Pops Fourth of July concert on the Charles River Esplanade.