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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 the 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 twenties 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 in 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."(Continued …)