Pops Concerts Change Their Tunes Amid Uncertainty

Boston Pops on July 4th (Wikipedia Commons)

Received wisdom holds that pops concerts are a cash cow, supporting orchestras’ ability to present more serious fare, while reaching audiences who may watch PBS and even buy the occasional recording but aren’t going to turn out for Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony. But according to a report by the Associated Press, the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, one of the signature pops concerts in the United States, faces an uncertain future after its lead sponsor pulled out last year.

The AP reports that the Boston-based insurance giant Liberty Mutual has dropped its support for the July Fourth production just as its executive director, David Mugar, announced he is stepping down after 43 years. “It’s not clear who’s going to fill the sponsorship and leadership void,” notes the AP.

In a way, the pops format has proven far more nimble than mainline orchestra subscription series, which have seen declining ticket sales and aging audiences in many cities. Over the past two decades, the pops bread-and-butter of light classics – marches and overtures by Rossini, Bizet or Holst – has given way to legacy rock bands, circus acts, crossover crooners and the ubiquitous film screenings with orchestra. Look at the Hollywood Bowl‘s July Fourth celebration and there’s an appearance by the U.S. Air Force Band but top billing goes to the band Chicago.

The New York Philharmonic last year dropped its Summertime Classics series, which for several years offered light classical repertoire during the early days of summer, including a patriotic July Fourth concert. The Philharmonic is currently on tour in Asia and it’s unclear if the series will return in 2017. At the same time, the Philharmonic has expanded its successful Art of the Score series, recently adding May performances of scenes from Disney’s “Fantasia” and Charlie Chaplin’s complete “City Lights.” Like many orchestras, the Philharmonic doesn’t label its pops concerts as such, but that’s clearly what they are.

While more in-depth research is needed to understand the health of the pops landscape, it would seem that Boston Pops, for its part, has sought to change with the times. Its July Fourth concert at the Charles River Esplanade is no old-school trip through pops standards. Instead, there are appearances by pop idols Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas and a nod to country fans with the group Little Big Town. Whether this will lure new sponsors and keep the holiday franchise strong for future years remains to be seen.

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