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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Tonight, hundreds of thousands of people will gather at the Charles River Esplanade to hear the Boston Pops give its annual July 4th concert and millions more will watch it on TV. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Boston Pops, the granddaddy of America's popular orchestras.

Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: Since 1897, practically every Boston Pops concert has ended with this piece:

(Soundbite of song, "The Star and Stripes Forever")

LUNDEN: John Philip Sousa's immortal march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever." And if your local orchestra plays it this July 4th, the Boston Pops and the man who conducted them for 50 years, Arthur Fiedler, have a lot to do with its popularity, says John Williams, the Hollywood composer who followed in Fiedler's footsteps.

Mr. JOHN WILLIAMS (Former Composer, Boston Pops): I think "Stars and Stripes" goes with the orchestra, goes with the whole in the entire spirit of what the Pops has brought to the American public principally, but I think because of Fiedler's television and recordings, to a public around the world as well.

LUNDEN: But way before Arthur Fiedler picked up the baton, the Boston Pops had carved out a niche, bringing light, orchestral music to wide audiences.

Mr. KEITH LOCKHART (Conductor, Boston Pops): As I like to say it, the Pops is the orchestra for people who don't know they like orchestras.

LUNDEN: Keith Lockhart has been conducting the Pops for the past 16 years. He says it was formed in 1885 by some of the Boston Symphony's early benefactors looking to expand its appeal.

Mr. LOCKHART: Boston is the first city in the country to have had a public library. And in many ways I think these very civic-minded people thought, how do we make this institution really resonate with lots and lots of people?

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: One way was to make the concerts a festive social occasion. From the beginning, Boston Pops concerts have served food and drink during performances. In fact, when Boston's Symphony Hall was built in 1900, one of its principal features was an elevator in the center of the auditorium, so the seats could be removed and tables put in their place.

Mr. LOCKHART: The idea from the beginning was to make the Boston Pops feel different. Not just be different repertoire, but really feel like a different way to experience music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LOCKHART: You just know that in the slow movement of something that's very poignant and soft, somebody is going to drop a wine glass, but that happens. It's part of the deal.

LUNDEN: When a 35-year-old viola player from the Boston Symphony, Arthur Fiedler, was hired to conduct the Pops in 1930, he soon turned it from a local phenomenon to a national icon. Fiedler embraced the technology of the day, says Keith Lockhart.

Mr. LOCKHART: The Pops started recording in 1935, and it wasn't long before pretty much every Victrola in America had a Boston Pops recording on it.

(Soundbite of music, "Jalousie")

LUNDEN: That's "Jalousie," the first recording the Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler ever made. Fiedler wanted the Pops to move beyond light European classics and present new American work. He hired a young bandmaster from Harvard named Leroy Anderson to do some arrangements for the Pops, then commissioned him to write some new pieces.

Mr. LOCKHART: He ended up being the American Johann Strauss, Jr., the ultimate American composer of light, perfectly crafted orchestral music. And much of his repertoire, pieces like, oh, "Syncopated Clock" and "Sleigh Ride" and things like that, we play to this day.

(Soundbite of music, "Syncopated Clock")

(Soundbite of music, "Sleigh Ride")

LUNDEN: Fiedler used a winning formula for Pops concerts he started with light orchestral works in the first part, a concerto in the middle and double bass player Larry Wolf says in the third part:

Mr. LARRY WOLF (Bass Player): We let our hair down and rocked as much as we were able and swung as much as we were able.

(Soundbite of music, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand")

LUNDEN: Arthur Fiedlers son, Peter, says his dad wasn't a snob when it came to programming pop music.

Mr. PETER FIEDLER: The fact that he took "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and had that arranged for the Pops was just brilliant. I mean, it took off like a rocket.

LUNDEN: The Pops truly became a national brand, barnstorming across the country on tour and appearing on the long-running PBS series "Evening at Pops." After Fiedlers death, John Williams took over. He continued his predecessors' traditions but brought some Hollywood flair to the podium.

(Soundbite of Raiders of the Lost Ark Theme)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Actually, I was very self-conscious about playing my own music in those concerts, and rarely did it in the '80s.

LUNDEN: Bass player Larry Wolf says it's always a kick to play John Williams' music.

Mr. WOLF: We're playing this stuff; the man who composed it is conducting us and the audience knows it. They sense that same kind of excitement and are just as engaged as we are.

LUNDEN: Keith Lockhart says one of the most exciting events of every Boston Pops season comes tonight.

Mr. LOCKHART: The July 4th concert is an amazing thing. It's more of sociological phenomenon than it is a musical event, but we are at the center of it. In the course of one concert, we play for a larger live crowd than all but, I think, two or three orchestras in the entire country play for over the entire year. This is five or six hundred thousand people. And the feeling just the incredible feeling of that many people gathered together to celebrate America's birthday it's a huge, huge party.

LUNDEN: And audiences around the country can join the party with the CBS broadcast this evening.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

LYDEN: You can hear the Boston Pops and hear stories about Arthur Fiedler chasing fire trucks at our website, NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. Happy Fourth. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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