When Keith Lockhart joined the Boston Pops as its new conductor back in 1995, replacing the legendary John Williams, he shot to instant stardom. He was the fresh, young face of a centuries-old institution; he was funny and charming and he was cute. Going into his 14th season as the Pops conductor, Lockhart is still all of those things — as well as a forward-thinking, adventurous ambassador for classical music.

During his tenure, he has not only overseen the beloved traditions of the Pops (such as the Fourth of July Spectacular and the “Evening at Pops” specials on PBS) but he has also instituted new traditions. POPSearch, an “American Idol”-style singing competition, and the High School Sing-Off, which lets Massachusetts teens sing show tunes with the Pops, were both new additions in the past few years.

He has also brought in alternative bands and artists such as My Morning Jacket, Guster, the Cowboy Junkies and Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls to perform with the venerable organization for its early Edgefest celebration. All that, on top of his other job as conductor for the Utah Symphony, though his tenure there ends this year.

Lockhart is a busy guy, but he and his orchestra will take the time to perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Bangor Auditorium, the kickoff event for the 2008-2009 season for the Maine Center for the Arts. Tickets are available by calling 581-1755, or by visiting www2.umaine.edu/mca/. Lockhart also took time out to chat with the Bangor Daily News for a few minutes about life on the road, life in Boston, and life in classical music.

You’ve been with the Pops for 13 years. What keeps it fresh and exciting for you?

We’re always looking to do different things, like Edgefest and POPSearch. But frankly, I think it’s mostly the audience. We have this wonderful, incredibly supportive and enthusiastic audience. I think that’s what keeps most performers going. If you were in “Phantom of the Opera” and were doing eight shows a week, you wouldn’t care about the show so much as you’ve done it 100 times. What keeps you inspired is the audience, and the people who are coming to it and it’s a new thing for them. That’s the best.

What prompted you to create POPSearch and the High School Sing-Off? What’s most fun about them?

On the surface, yes, the mania for reality shows and “American Idol” inspired it. At the Pops we play all sort of music, from classical to rock to gospel to Broadway to jazz. So I thought that a Pops take on American Idol would be fun — we could get all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, and let them sing in front of the orchestra. They probably never would have a chance like that otherwise. The High School Sing-Off is specific to musical theater, and was created to shine a spotlight on talented high school students, and on school music programs. These days, with music programs having funding cut, it was necessary to say something good about it. The winner was a student from a public high school in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s pretty incredible for a 16-year-old to get to sing with the Pops on the Fourth of July, in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

Who is a particular musician or band that you’d like to see the Pops perform with?

The ultimate would be Bruce Springstreen. “Born In the U.S.A.” with the Pops on the Fourth. That’s all you really need! Aside from that, I think Billy Joel is one of the many talented performers who we have not yet worked with. There are so many.

Insofar as “classical” music goes, what’s the most thrilling piece you’ve ever conducted? What’s a personal favorite?

Oh, I couldn’t name one. It’s like, “What’s your favorite food?” I do particularly love Mahler. His symphonies are amazing, profound things that I have had the opportunity to conduct many times. But I couldn’t name just one.

You’ve split your time between Boston and Salt Lake City for several years now. What do you love about both those cities?

Boston is one of the world’s great cities. There’s such an incredible amount of love and support for all of its institutions, not just us. Just like with the Fourth of July celebration, it’s a city that values its traditions very much. I’m proud to say we’re a part of that. Salt Lake City has been great because not only has it allowed me to explore the more “serious” side of my musical personality, but I’m also a skier. It’s a nice balance.

Aside from concerts with the Pops, do you ever make it to Maine?

Actually, I have a home in Washington County. I’ve come up during the summer for about 15 years now. I love it here. It’s a place to escape.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.