The Concertgoer Pops Culture
SPRING has come, and with it, Boston's vernal rite of music. Each evening from April through June, the marble pilasters of Symphony Hall are transformed into the foundations of a plastic Lawrence Welk wonderland by the magic baton of Arthur Fiedler, as thousands of faithful look on in awe.
The Boston Pops in the place of the Boston Symphony, like Whirl in the place of Zeus, creates a world of unreality where reason existed before.
The best definition of the Boston Pops I've heard was given several years ago in the Collegiate Guide to Greater Boston. Their reviewer called the Pops "The Boston Symphony minus the first chair players, and with little or no rehearsal." Certainly this is an apt description for this clever little device to provide work for deserving local musicians after the Boston season but before Tanglewood.
The scrupulous concertgoer makes several preparations before departing for a Pops concert. First, he makes sure to go in a group, in order to enjoy the Cronin's-like atmosphere of the Pops bar during intermission. Second, and infinitely more important, he checks on the groups in attendance on the night he is planning to go, in order to provide himself with a more interesting milieu. I violated this cardinal rule a few weeks ago, and found myself in the middle of a delegation from the American Gastroenterological Association. Had I come a night earlier, I might have seen the Exeter Andover Alumni, or even the Dana Hall alumnae.
Once you have selected your night, and gotten your group together, you need only transport yourself to Symphony Hall. This is most efficiently accomplished by catching the Dudley bus at Harvard Square, getting off at the Auditorium stop, and walking four or five blocks to Symphony Hall. Of course the bus goes all the way to Symphony Hall, but it costs an extra twenty cents to ride just across the Mass Pike, and this money could be used to buy one fifth of a glass of Pops beer.
Once at Symphony Hall, the problem of seating develops. It is most fashionable to hire a table on the floor at a cost of five or six dollars-per persons. Hiring a table gives you the privilege of sitting uncomfortably and craning your neck to see the stage, as well as ordering from the Pops wine list. The wine list includes such delicacies as New York Burgundy and just about everything Pastene has ever made, as well as-inexplicably-Chateau Latour, year unspecified. A truly adventurous spirit may even order Pops Punch.
All of these pleasures are denied the balcony dweller. He rates only a seat overlooking the revels below, and a better view of the stage. He also, by taking the cheapest seats in the house is able to attend the concert for only one dollar. Although there are certain advantages to having a table, a scrupulous cost-benefit analysis will reveal the superiority of a dollar seat.
THE MAIN object of an evening at Pops-at least in theory-is to hear the music. The Heliconian strains of this celestial band flow sweetly to the ears of the listener, enveloping him in a rapture which has led more loquacious critics to rampant excess of sesquipedalian verbiage. The night I attended, however, must have been the Muse's night off, for the music seemed more a product of Hades than Halicon.
There is something ludicrous about any Pops program, just as there is always a touch of the absurd in any attempt to poularize high culture, but this evening transcended even the normal insipidity of such things. For the benefit of a television audience, the orchestra wore powder-blue Xavier Cugat uniforms, and played an archetypal program. Gems like the Nutcracker Suite, Peter and the Wolf, and Bolero were featured, along with the Pops's own arrangement of the score of Hair. Maybe it was the heat from the spotlights, maybe it was the lack of rehearsal, but somehow the program never got off the ground. The brass was sharp, the violins were too loud, and the popping corks of the gastroenterologists on the floor interrupted the performance every other minute. Arthur Fiedler's daughter made a valiant effort to narrate Peter and the Wolf as it was danced by the Boston Ballet Company, but somehow the piece was too contrived, too Leonard Bernstein-ish, too much an attempt to condescend to the masses. Or perhaps this reviewer is just too bilious.
THE DESCENT to Hell, Virgil tells us, is easy. It's getting back out that's a problem. Once the first half of this concert had plunged itself into the lower depths, nothing could lure it back. As the gastroenterologists settled back into their seats, and the balcony dwellers returned from the bar, a sudden portent of doom came over me. A portent, as it turns out, eminently justified.
We all know Ravel's Bolero. It is difficult to get it wrong. The Pops did. Not in tempo, or interpretation, but the actual score itself. Players kept missing notes, First the French horns came in wrong, then the English horn massacred an arpeggio, and soon the entire performance was beyond redemption.
It is difficult, one realizes, to say bad things about the Pops-rather like attacking motherhood, or advocating vivisection. There is something unfair in attacking this innocent, unpretentious organization, which does not claim any sort of musical eminence. Perhaps the best way to take the Pops is after several pitchers of their overpriced Pops Punch.