The program for the evening is fairly typical: Rimski-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky’s explosive 1812 Overture, followed by Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, songs from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy and an encore consisting of Look What They’ve Done to My Song, a Sousa march, then Cabaret and the Coca-Cola jingle. The man holding the baton thrives on such musical anarchy—and so do his audiences. Approaching his 80th birthday (Dec. 17) and in his 45th year as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, Arthur Fiedler has no thought of retiring—nor of changing his con brio style.
At his usual clip, the white-maned maestro each year conducts over 180 concerts at home and abroad. How has he managed to stay on top for so long? “I don’t know,” shrugs Fiedler. “Orchestras always say they need a change. But I’ll tell you one thing, it’s harder to stay at the top than to get here.”
Fiedler’s tenacity can be traced to his Boston boyhood. Raised by his Austrian parents, Fiedler (which means “fiddler” in Old German) was given his first music lessons by his mother, Johanna, an accomplished pianist. Where she left off in Arthur’s musical education, the rest of the family picked up. Fiedler’s father, Emanuel, two uncles and a first cousin all played for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There was tutoring in French as well as in German—”so I could write to my German grandparents properly.”
It was during this period that he stumbled upon his life’s other passion at the local firehouse. “I got to know the firemen,” he recalls. “They let me feed the horses and play with the dalmatians. I spent every spare minute there.” Today Fiedler is perhaps the world’s best-known “spark,” or fire-chaser. He has more than 400 honorary fire chief helmets, a 1936 Ford fire engine given to him on his 75th birthday and a shortwave car radio for monitoring fire calls. In 1974, Ellen, Fiedler’s wife of 32 years, picked up a copy of the Boston Globe and saw a front page picture of her traveling husband in full firefighter’s regalia at a five-alarm predawn fire in San Francisco. “They called me,” he explained to her over the phone. “It was near my hotel. I had to go.”
In 1911, at the age of 16 Fiedler left Boston to study at Berlin’s Royal Academy of Music. There he played the violin in cabarets to help pay his tuition. Back in Boston in the summer of 1915, young Fiedler joined a resort hotel trio on Nantucket Island before being accepted, without audition, as a second violinist with the Boston Symphony. He also wound up playing viola, celesta, piano, organ and even percussion.
His dream was to conduct. After the regular conductor of the Boston Pops quit in an artistic rage, Fiedler was named to the post in 1930. Since then Fiedler has, as he puts it, “covered the waterfront.” In addition to conducting such legendary soloists as Pablo Casals, he has performed with the diverse likes of Peggy Lee, Marian Anderson, Dave Brubeck, the Carpenters, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Among the nonmusical celebrities Fiedler has appeared with are Danny Kaye, William F. Buckley (reciting Carnival of Animals) and Big Bird of Sesame Street.
Fiedler has long been one of the few classical musicians who takes equal delight in popular music. Just after the Beatles’ first successful American tour, Fiedler happened to be conducting in Liverpool, where the young musicians were anxiously emulating their famous townsmen. “I went around to the taverns and saw these boys, all untrained. And I thought, ‘It does have a special sound. It is unique.’ So I thought, ‘Just for the hell of it, I want to get this tune.’ ” The Pops’ white-tie version of I Want to Hold Your Hand was such a hit that Fiedler ended up recording an entire album of Beatles’ songs. Ironically, he has never met the Beatles. The closest he came was on a visit to a Caribbean island where the Beatles were vacationing. One morning he received a huge mango with his breakfast. On it was written: “Dear Arthur, we love your music. The Beatles.”
The sentiment is shared by millions. So far, Fiedler, who is not above appearing on television to plug G.E. air conditioners or the quiet ride of the Boeing 747, has sold more than 50 million records for RCA. At a time when symphonies are losing money, the Boston Pops is operating solidly in the black. Fiedler’s hour-long weekly show on the Public Broadcasting System is one of the network’s most widely viewed programs.
Such broad appeal may well lie in the fact that Fiedler’s own tastes mirror those of his public. He loathes Muzak and what he calls snobbish “culture vultures.” He delights in traveling, beautiful women, dogs, gin, beer, small parties, and is outspokenly proud of his three children. Peter, a 22-year-old University of Massachusetts sophomore, has already made his Symphony Hall debut with his own Rubber Dog Review rock band. Deborah, 27, was just graduated from Harvard Law School, while Johanna, 29, works in the press department of the New York Philharmonic.
Boston’s Grand Old Man of Music has one special dream. “I’d love to be on an island with 100 of the finest musicians in the world,” Fiedler muses, his eyes lighting up like the fireworks he ordered for the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture at Tanglewood last summer. “They would live in the greatest style, with their wives, sweethearts, children. They could have everything and anything they wanted and no limit on time. Then, we could really make music.”