Pops on the Heights, the annual Boston College fundraising tradition, will turn 26 this year, and it’s not without dedication, hard work, and the generosity of parents and alumni that have made the event what it is today.
“There’s a thrill of hearing the chorale sing with the Boston Pops,” said John Finney, director of the University Chorale. “And it’s unbelievable to hear the audience’s response.”
It’s a big night for student performers—some of them have never performed in front of a large audience before, and suddenly they’re standing in front of thousands. First-year students in the Chorale often don’t know what the event is all about. But once they step onstage, they instantly understand the caliber of Pops on the Heights.
Cassie Pearson, the director of marketing and management for the Chorale and MCAS ’20, and Shannon Lally, the University Chorale music librarian and MCAS ’20, are both struck by the powerful experience of performing with the Pops every year.
“It’s one of the absolute best groups in the country, even the world,” Pearson said.
The performance’s success is not without hard work and focus, though.
“It’s a great musical challenge,” Lally said. “But sometimes we don’t really get to learn at such a fast pace and get used to a new conducting style.”
Throughout the year, the Chorale works nearly exclusively with Finney. When it performs at Pops on the Heights, it is directed by Keith Lockhart, the conductor of the Boston Pops and, for this evening, of the University Chorale.
“John can pay special attention to us, he knows our trouble spots,” Lally said. “But with Keith we have to be really independent.”
“Keith is so far away,” Pearson said. “We’re all the way up on the risers behind the orchestra, and he has a whole other group to worry about, and they’re internationally acclaimed.”
Finney has worked at Boston College for 26 years, and the inaugural Pops on the Heights took place during his first year. Besides being a “huge shot of adrenaline,” the event was a huge success.
“It was the first thing I did with the Chorale,” Finney said. “And we’ve participated every year since.”
Finney is aware of the hard work that goes into preparing for Pops on the Heights, describing it as a “fun type of challenge.” He says the acoustics are somewhat problematic when the chorale is lined up, rather than in a u-shaped position. And performing in Conte Forum doesn’t help, either.
“We really have to get used to the sound in Conte,” Finney said. “It’s difficult to sit in straight lines.”
The University Chorale will be singing a medley of music that might be more recognizable to older alumni than some of the students in attendance. Alongside Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow,” the Chorale will perform a medley of songs from the ’60s and ’70s. During the sequence, the Dance Organization of Boston College (DOBC) will perform a new piece of choreography.These songs are chosen for them by Lockhart to fit with the performance given by the Pops.
Although the group has a few weeks to prepare these songs for Pops on the Heights, they don’t get much time to rehearse with the Pops themselves.
“Our rehearsal time with the pops is super limited, we might get a couple hours the day of the event,” Pearson said. “We run through it a couple times, but that’s it.
So instead, the University Chorale spends the weeks prior to the event focusing on perfecting its performance.
This year’s student soloist, Molly Cahill, MCAS ’20, has sung in Conte Forum before—she performed at the Mass of the Holy Spirit this year, and at baccalaureate Masses in the past—but never for this many people.
“Over the summer, I was mostly excited,” she said. “But now that it’s closer, I’m getting nervous. So many people who are important to me will be in the audience.”
In the end, though, Cahill is ecstatic to have this opportunity. “Singing is something that makes me really happy,” she said. “It’s a great outlet.”
Pops on the Heights is BC’s largest fundraiser for student scholarships. It has made attending BC possible for over 2,000 students and their families over the past 25 years. Last year alone, Pops on the Heights raised $14 million, making the total almost $60 million in scholarship money in the last 25 years.
“Every year we’re raising more money,” Finney said. “People get their money’s worth, for sure.”
Part of the success of Pops on the Heights is the event’s evolution. Even if you take away the guest performer—BC typically attracts big-name artists (this year will feature Lionel Richie)— the event is still first-rate. Every year features something new—last year Pops on the Heights used wristbands that lit up in synchrony with the music.
“We’ve got sophisticated special effects,” Finney said. “The visuals get more spectacular every year.”
Pops on the Heights is planned by Rafanelli Events (which has put together events for the Red Sox Foundation, Louis Vuitton, and the Clintons, to name a few). It truly is a spectacle, in some ways unexpectedly so. But every year, Pops on the Heights gets grander, more technologically advanced, and more surprising.
The selection process to become the student soloist is competitive, to say the least. If a student is a finalist of the Sing it to the Heights competition, they can skip the first round of auditions for Pops on the Heights. During the audition, contestants have to sing two songs in front of a panel of people in BC’s music department. Cahill found out she had been selected at the end of the last school year, giving her plenty of time to prepare over the summer.
BC set Cahill up with a vocal coach over the summer, and she would go into the symphony hall once every week or two to practice.
“The preparation gets ramped up as we get closer to the event,” Cahill said. “But the long-term preparation makes me feel better about it.”
As the event approaches, she plans to rehearse multiple times within the next week. At first, her practices were more conversation-based, as they planned what songs would work best with her range and style. But now the rehearsals have been more performance-based, Cahill said.
Cahill rehearses in the practice rooms in the St. Thomas More Apartments and Lyons Hall. “One piece is extremely wordy and I need to memorize it,” she said. “I also take specific notes about corrections and suggestions to implement them in my individual practices.
She has been surprised by the level of support she has experienced on the road to Pops on the Heights.
“The Pops really want this to be a great experience for me,” Cahill said. “They gave me the same treatment coming into practice as they would with one of their soloists. Everyone wanted me to succeed.”
At this year’s Pops on the Heights, Cahill will be performing a combination of two songs from West Side Story, “Something’s Coming” and “Somewhere.” This year would have been the 100th birthday of West Side Story conductor Leonard Bernstein. Lockhart recommended Cahill combine the two songs in his honor.
Cahill is more than familiar with the Pops. A New England native, she grew up watching them perform. She attends their annual Independence Day performance, as well as some of their holiday performances. To top it all off, her high school graduation present was to watch the Pops play at the Boston Symphony Hall with Mandy Patinkin (of The Princess Bride and Criminal Minds). That night, the Pops performed one of the songs she will sing at this year’s Pops on the Heights.
“It’s so familiar,” she said. “It adds sentimental value.”
This is what creates an event like Pops on the Heights. It combines the world-class sound of one of the best symphony orchestras in the country with the familiarity and comfort of being at BC.
“It’s amazing that BC has this event,” she began. “There’s no other way this could happen for some students.”
Featured Image By Jess Rivals / Heights Staff