Inside the Boston Pops' patriotic tradition

(CBS News) If a date on the calendar could have a soundtrack, July Fourth would have the Boston Pops Orchestra.

The 127-year-old Pops have packed the esplanade along Boston's Charles River every Independence Day for 39 years. Mixing popular songs with patriotic ones, the 75 members of the Pops perform not far from where the first blood was shed in the fight for independence.

Actor and native-son Michael Chiklis has been a lifelong attendee. Wednesday night, he'll stand on-stage as host for the second consecutive year.

Chiklis says, "I actually remember having my first visceral feelings of patriotism at the esplanade. ... (The performance is) completely exhilarating - every hair on your body stands - and, with me, you can't necessarily see them - but every hair on my body stood on end - it's really a thrill."

The performance was conceived by legendary conductor Arthur Fiedler toward the end of his 50-year tenure with the Pops. John Williams kept up the tradition. Then, in 1995, the conductor's baton was passed along to Keith Lockhart, one of the most recognizable classical conductors living today. He's only the third conductor in the last 83 years of the Pops.

Lockhart says there's nothing like the July 4 concert. "When we're seen by millions of people across the nation ... there's no other performance like it - for any orchestra, there's no other performance like that. I mean, you think that, just the live audience - it's bigger than any other orchestra performs for in its entire year, combined."

Every year, 800,000 people pack the great lawn while millions more watch it on TV, but up on stage, for one performer this year - it's not only a tradition, but an emotional homecoming.

For 30 July Fourths, percussionist Pat Hollenbeck played with the Pops, until his stroke in 2009. He couldn't walk and had trouble reading music and striking his drum. A determined Hollenbeck told his doctor he'd recover to return for a July Fourth performance, and re-join a national celebration.

When asked about his first time back on stage after two years - and how it compares to 30 years ago when he started playing the event, Hollenbeck said, "In some ways, I feel like an 18-year-old kid - doing something for the first time, except ... I have 30 years of experience."

What will be on his mind on July 4? Hollenbeck said with a chuckle, "Trying not to screw up."

Watch Seth Doane's full report in the video above.

You can watch the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at 10/9c on CBS.

  • Seth Doane

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