Keith Lockhart

The inaugural event for the University of Massachusetts "Uncommon Leadership Series" was held on June 14, 2006. The featured guest was Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops. Keith was interviewed by Glenn Mangurian, University of Massachusetts "Executive in Residence." The topic was "Leading a World-class Organization." Jack Wilson, President of the University of Massachusetts, hosted the program. An edited version of that interesting, provocative and relevant conversation follows.

On Being a Conductor

Q. When did you decide you wanted to be a conductor?

A. Well, it was end of undergrad years. One of my instructors, whom I think was afraid of having another unemployed pianist on his hands asked, "Have you ever thought about conducting? You seem to have the analytical capability, and the leadership skills; the kind of coaching mentality that being a conductor requires."

Until that conversation, I'd never thought of being a conductor. In 1980, at the end of my junior year I went to the Aspen Music Festival. The cool thing was I saw people conducting who were 75 and 80 years-old and still as engaged and as active as they probably had been 40 years before. Suddenly, I had role models. I said, 'gee, maybe I could do this'. So at the age of 20 I stuck the blinders on and plowed in one direction and haven't fallen off the cliff yet.

Q. Who most influenced you as a conductor?

A. As for most young American conductors, Leonard Bernstein was a model, even though he has been gone for 15 years. He was a Renaissance man of music. He was a great pianist, composer, conductor, but most important he was a great advocate and communicator of music. He could communicate to everybody, from truck drivers to university PhDs, and be absolutely compelling and inspirational. He could speak a language that people on both ends of the spectrum understood, and he would still sound, in the end, like a "fire and brimstone preacher," bringing people to the cause. That's an amazing communicative gift.

On Culture and Heritage

Q. What's it like conducting an organization that is 121 years old and how do you see your role today?

A. It's not just becoming the conductor of the Boston Pops. It's following the legacy of a person whose name is familiar to people in Boston and elsewhere, even if they weren't born when he died. Arthur Fiedler. He defined the institution on the national level. His accomplishments have inextricably linked his name to the institution.

The best advice about becoming conductor of the Pops actually came from John Williams. He said, "Look, people here love the Boston Pops, they love the institution. It's not about you. Can you imagine what I had to go through? I had to replace Arthur Fiedler." He said, "Just be a caring steward of the institution. Show that you love the institution, and that you love Boston. People will love you too because of that. You don't have to worry about making it your own institution."

When an institution has been successful for more than a century, the biggest mistake is to come in and say, "Well I must remake it in my image." Why? It's been working well for over a century. Slowly, over time, as your personality -- your likes and dislikes, your passions, the things you're good at, the things you're not so good at -- interact with the institution, it will change to reflect your leadership.

My job is not just standing on the stage conducting. Part of my job is to proselytize -- to sell people on this art form that I love and that I think everybody else should too.

On the Business of the Arts

Q. Do you see parallels between leading an orchestra and a business?

A. There are certainly parallels and, there are differences. Just imagine that you are the CEO of a corporation where you sit perched on a little box so you can see what all of your employees are doing. Nobody has a cubicle, nobody has any privacy. It is basically a flat hierarchy. There is middle management in an orchestra -- the leaders of the individual sections. Your number two is your concert master --your first violinist -- the historical spokesperson of the orchestra, which is why you shake that person's hand when you come out to start a concert. Historically, the concertmaster is usually the only person who is empowered to knock on your door, to walk into your room and tell you what they really think of you without their job being imperiled as a result. They're the person the members of the orchestra go to express their feelings. But, middle management has nothing to say in the ongoing course of the rehearsal experience.

Today the work conditions and committees have changed the old model of the top-down dictator- Toscanini standing there shouting, "You, out!" sending the person out onto the stoop on Thanksgiving Day with a family of eight to feed. It doesn't work that way anymore. Nor should it. The old model might have been an easier way to do business then; but I don't believe that overall it's an effective way today.

Q. Do you get involved in the business side of things?

A. The Pops is a unique business model. It's a hierarchy that has two heads-the Managing Director and the Conductor, which report to the Board. Together the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops represent an $80 million a year budgeted organization. If I had to run the business side, we wouldn't be alive today. On the other hand, there's the public head who sets the artistic course for the organization. The two roles-the managing director and the artistic head-are separate but have to work together.

It used to be, even just 20 years ago, that music directors would say, don't bother me with the details, don't bother me with the budget line, please don't ask me to go out on a development fundraising call, please don't ask me to make intelligent decisions with financial ramifications; I'm an artist, that's not what I do. That's a ludicrous, "head in the sand" attitude these days. The arts organizations are running too close to the wire financially not to have people who lead them artistically and who also understand the financial ramifications of their decisions.

On Changing Markets

Q. Nationally, attendance in the performing arts is down. Do you see that?

A. This is a dangerous time for the arts. We are becoming in many ways a society that's walled off in individual surround-sound stereo and computer-console enclaves. We've lost the idea of coming together for the shared experience of hearing a work of art or viewing a movie. Consequently we really need to sell the process of live engagement-the visceral thrill of being involved in a live performance.

Q. How's has the Boston Pops stayed relevant, and how will it stay relevant for the next generation of concert goers?

A. Staying relevant is the single biggest challenge to anybody leading this institution. In a way, it's a bigger challenge than James Levine or Seiji Ozawa faced in the more traditional Boston Symphony context, and more than I face in my other role as the "James Levine" of the Utah Symphony.

When I first came to Boston, the Pops operated much as it did in the Fiedler era: The performances were 6 nights a week in Symphony Hall at 8:00 P.M. People would call a number for tickets and just go to the performance on their specified evening. The audience was undifferentiated in their interests. That they were attending the Boston Pops was enough in itself. That's a more na? approach to marketing than any business goes through these days.

The Pops has always been considered the vehicle for classical music that is a bit of a museum piece, that is reflective of its time, that somehow has to keep up with the culture while maintaining its roots-not just unmoored and floating around everywhere.

So the question is, How do we continue? How do we value a tradition, cherish it without freezing it in amber? The core of our audience now is the baby boomer generation, who grew up with different expectations from audiences of previous generations. So how do we redefine the experience for those who are now our core support?

Today the Pops consumer is more discerning: He or she asks, "What exactly am I getting from this experience?" We now realize that few programs can pull in everybody, from the youngest demographic to the oldest. So today we do patriotic nights next to nights with indie rock bands, next to jazz nights with John Pizzarelli and Jane Monheit, next to Broadway nights. We carefully market, not just the programs differentiated in our brochure but also the media outlets used to sell the product. We're into all sorts of alternative rock stations selling "Aimee Mann" and "My Morning Jacket," and obviously we don't sell the "Best of Broadway" on those stations.

On Talent & Leadership

Q. How do you lead musicians that are world class in their fields?

A. One of the things that influences orchestral leadership is the kind of person who plays in an orchestra. If you look at the Boston Symphony on stage, realize that every one of those people had 'the dream'. Every one of the people in the violin section had the dream of playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto in front of the orchestra as the person whose artistic impulses were being followed by the people around them. They don't dream about being a person who takes orders.

The conductor's challenge is to entitle everybody under his or her leadership while still creating something that works collectively. When working with a great orchestra like the Boston Symphony or the Boston Pops, you learn that your challenge, as a leader, is to make the musicians feel invested in your decisions. Effective conductors lead in a way that has musicians "own" decision like their decisions.

Q. How do you evaluate a new conductor?

A. Key to evaluating a conductor is observing the musicians. When we evaluate a person for a staff conductor in Boston or Salt Lake City, we have some unique tests. Many candidates will apply for the position by sending DVDs or videos of themselves conducting. We'll listen to what they send us, but we'll turn the volume down and just watch the musicians. Then we'll ask, "Do you have any idea what piece this person is conducting?" If we don't, then the person is immediately taken out of consideration, because the conductor's job is to visually embody a sound, not reactively but proactively.

Q. What's the best compliment the audience can give its conductor after a superb performance?

A. From the musicians, the best compliment is, '"You made it so easy to play." That's the highest praise a conductor can receive, especially from great musicians like those in this orchestra. My job is to remove the obstacles that make the musicians' job difficult.

From the audience, the best compliment is that you made the music come alive for us, you connected us to the music, you were part of the performance in a way that made the experience compelling and engaging. My job is to translate the orchestra's musical vision to the audience.

Uncommon Leadership and Pioneers of Innovation Series

Uncommon Leadership home

Pioneers of Innovation home

Read Lockhart interview in the Harvard Business Review