An Era Comes to a Close With Bill Cosel Conducting His Own Swan Song

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Chas Norton: Bill Cosel announced his retirement from exec producer of POPS; last night was our last taping and he was asked to conduct the Stars and Stripes Forever by Keith Lockhart. We kept tape rolling and Billy Francis cut it.

Bill abruptly found himself in the director’s hot-seat.

Bill Francis: Bill [Cosel] told me that he decided to retire after this season, because 35 years was a nice, round number. He said he had thought about it last year, and had even written the letters of resignation, but never mailed them. As he pointed out, retiring after 35 years sounds a lot better than 34 1/2. It’s unknown right now who’ll take over as E.P., but he told me that he’ll be available to come back as a free-lance director, “if they’ll have me.”

… I had no idea that they were going to let him conduct, or that I was going to direct, and basically had bout 3 seconds to prepare. Once into it, I stayed mostly with him except for a couple of swooping jib shots, and cut-aways of musicians smiling and his family watching. It was one of those things that when it’s over, you hope to God that it was coherent. Fortunately, everyone seemed to think that it was.

So, here’s a salute of respect for a long, and successful career in taking the Boston Pops from the black and white era where we were not allowed to add even one light to the dull, grey, concert hall atmosphere, to the lushly beautiful, sparkling and exciting production it has become. We admire you, Mr. Cosel. Thank you.

By the way, we all knew Bill Francis could direct — but who knew that Cosel could conduct?

Our correspondents, Chas Norton and Bill Francis caught while on a “Roadshow” shoot.

From the Boston Globe7/11/2004

When a shovel plays like a cello — Technicians are instrumental in preparing for Pops broadcasts

The cameramen and the sound crew and the lighting technicians have been at Symphony Hall since 6 a.m. It’s almost 11 now, on a sunny June Monday, and they’re still fiddling with lights, setting up microphones, calibrating cameras, and trying to fix a problem caused by the tendency of the 104-year-old hall’s balconies to jiggle. The jiggling moves the lights, and moving them throws them out of focus.

“Is it possible to take down the chandeliers some,” a technician calls from the stage, “so the guys can fix the focus on the statues?” The chandeliers dim a bit. He squints across the darkened hall toward the statues that rim its upper walls. “Plato over there is a little dim, too,” the tech says. Plato gets a little brighter.

It’s all routine for the crews from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and WGBH-TV, which have been setting up together for “Evening at Pops” broadcasts since 1970. Arthur Fiedler held the baton then, of course; after him came John Williams, then, 10 years ago, Keith Lockhart.This year’s “Evening at Pops” series kicks off tonight at 8 on WGBH (Ch. 2) with a retrospective and celebration of Lockhart’s tenure. After that, though, it’ll be back to the familiar fare: a smooth, gently swinging broadcast that aims to make viewers feel as if they’re sitting at a table in Symphony Hall themselves, listening to a little pop, a little classical, and a little chat. The show everyone’s rehearsing and taping on this day, with Vanessa Williams, will air on Channel 2 July 25.

“We still live on Fiedler’s menu, because it works,” says Bill Cosel. He has been the executive producer of the series since it began; this is his last season in that role, but he plans to stay involved, consulting and occasionally directing. “What changes is the players — and the guests. In the beginning, it was Benny Goodman, Doc Severinsen, Pearl Bailey. Keith Lockhart watched it as a child. That’s kind of sobering — here he is conducting!”

Quintessential Boston Lockhart wasn’t the only one who grew up on “Evening at Pops.” It’s a staple of PBS programming across the country; it’s one of the things people in Dayton or Dubuque think of when they think of Boston.

“It so is what it is,” says coordinating producer Susie Dangel, who has worked on the show for 25 years. “Like Fenway Park. I equate them: There’s still something real and genuine.”It’s Dangel’s job to handle, well, pretty much any detail that can come up while producing a TV program and dealing with celebrities, from contracts and rights agreements to the special popcorn that Loretta Lynn once requested. “I always thought maybe I could be a good concierge,” Dangel says.

Today, while Cosel meets with the camera crew and associate director Janet McFadden to discuss the schedule, Dangel takes a few notes, makes sure lunch is ordered, and locates a tailor to tighten the fit of the black T-shirt on one of the dancers who will accompany Vanessa Williams.

“Tonight the show starts at 7,” Cosel is telling the crew. “It’s a special session,” meaning the musicians have been hired for three hours instead of a concert’s two, and the director can ask them to redo any pieces he needs for broadcast. “The first part will be orchestra repertory, the second Vanessa. At 1 p.m. sharp we’ll rehearse the Vanessa part. She’ll be here.”

A couple of the guys nudge each other. “You see Vanessa yet?”

But the mild celebrity buzz gives way to a dry rundown of the nearly 1,000 shots the cameras will be filming tonight. Cosel came to the orchestra’s rehearsal with Vanessa Williams on Saturday and watched all the numbers, a score by his side, to block, or arrange, the sequence of shots: a close-up of the singer, a two-shot on a couple of horn players, a wide perspective on the whole stage. Cosel fed all his plans into a computer program, which then sorted them out, camera by camera, and printed out strips of paper for each of the 10 camera operators to place on his equipment.

The strips say things like “214 trumpet” or “387 strings” or “433 crush violins,” meaning to ZOOM toward the instruments in, er, a crushing sort of way. Each strip lists only the shots that that camera will make. But, as with so many computerized wonders, there are glitches here. “Two shot 415s?” McFadden says. “That doesn’t make sense.”

They all peer at the strips; Cosel checks his master list. Apparently, the computer somehow interspersed shots from the last show’s taping of “Riverdance” into Williams’s big number from “Carmen Jones.” Cosel starts reading off changes, and the cameramen get out their pencils.”430 on 8, trumpets, that should not exist. 431 on 4, scratch it off; 432 on 6, scratch it off. `Crush violins’ ? don’t crush them; don’t even stroke them. From there on we seem to be OK.”

Once they’ve read through all the shots, the crew members break for lunch. They’ll come back to rehearse at 1, but here’s the remarkable thing: They’ll be setting up shots not by looking at musicians, but by focusing on empty chairs. The musicians rehearsed Saturday with Williams but won’t see her again until tonight; she’ll work with the cameras this afternoon, but cameras, singer, and orc
hestra will all come together for the first time at the taping itself. “We very rarely get a second rehearsal,” Lockhart had said Saturday during a break. He shrugged. “That’s the gig.”

Calling the shots Williams arrives right on time, casually dressed in jeans and a tank top, with sandals she can dance in. As the cameras move into position for their first shots of her, a sound tech checks the microphones and Dangel assumes Lockhart’s place on the podium. (Like the Pops players, he won’t return until tonight.) Dangel-as-Lockhart shakes Williams’s hand, then Williams stands in the spotlight, listening to her recorded voice from Saturday, as the cameras go through their paces.

Cosel’s voice comes over the loudspeaker from the video truck parked outside, next to a sound truck; he’ll be stationed in the video truck through the night. “Hi, Vanessa, it’s Bill. I’m just going to stop for a second so I can block these shots with the cello.”Dangel motions to a stagehand. “Can you hand me the shovel?” He reaches for a large orange shovel lying amid the clutter of cables and tables and chairs on the floor of the hall. Dangel takes it, pulls up a chair behind Williams, and pantomimes playing the shovel-cello. Williams laughs. “Don’t laugh at me!” Dangel says. “Don’t you laugh at me!” But she’s laughing, too.

Out in the truck, the run-through feels considerably less relaxed. “Stay with the guy, stay with the guy,” Cosel urges through his headset, telling a cameraman how to move. Cosel is sitting in front of a bank of screens, with both the current shot and the next one — of the musicians’ empty chairs, now festooned with cardboard signs: “TRUMPET,” “WINDS” — right in front of him. To his left sits Jerry Cohen, who tracks his pencil along the score to keep things in synch, and left of him is McFadden. She’s got shots from all 10 cameras in front of her, and it’s her job to make sure each camera is in position for its next shot before Cosel makes the call to switch to it.

“10 — take!” Cosel says. “4 — take,” and the image in front of him switches from Camera 10 to Camera 4. “8 — take!” It switches again. Meanwhile, McFadden murmurs softly in her own headset, always a step ahead. “535 on 4, 536 on 8 . . .”

On it goes through the afternoon. Williams listens to herself singing “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” from “Carmen Jones,” then does the dance steps that close the number, then does them again, then again. Cosel apologizes for the retakes; Williams just nods gently and does it again.By the end of the night, Williams will have danced the “Carmen” number twice more in front of the audience, too, after a dancer’s scarf comes loose halfway through the first take. Cosel will have called “Take!” nearly 2,000 times — this afternoon for rehearsal and tonight for real. Finally the audience will leave, the musicians will leave, Lockhart will leave, Williams will leave. Then the crew will start dismantling the TV gear so that the Pops can do a regular, untelevised concert the next night — before the crews come back on Thursday to set up for taping Kristin Chenoweth.

“It all has to be struck as soon as we fade to black,” says Gordon Mehlman, who supervises the lighting cues and the cable layout. “When we get done tonight, it has to look like we weren’t around.”

‘I’m all over you’ It’s 6:15, 45 minutes before showtime. The doors will open soon for the audience, but for now the stage still belongs to the technicians. Two slender silver ladders dangle down from crow’s nests above the stage, where two techs will spend the evening. “We’re going to send you up,” a foreman tells one tech, and he climbs the ladder as his crewmates hold it steady. Buckled into a safety harness, then secured in his seat up top, he pulls the ladder up behind him.

Camera operator Mark Helton, who has changed from jeans into black tie — protective coloration in case another camera catches him among the musicians — greets the harpist as she enters from backstage. “You’re playing harp tonight? I’m all over you.”

He turns to a visitor. “If you watch, you’ll see I dance back here,” he says, maneuvering through the tightly packed percussion section. “That’s my nemesis right there,” he says. “Chimes. Because if you hit it ? ” he hits it, and it jangles — “that’s what it does.”

The musicians are filtering in toward their seats. Lockhart and Williams are waiting in their dressing rooms. Backstage, crew members and assistants cluster around a TV monitor that shows what Cosel is seeing in the truck. Smiling, Lockhart makes his way through the crowd and walks out the tall double doors onto the stage. Applause fills the hall.

“We’re thrilled to have you here tonight,” the backstage spectators hear him tell the audience. He picks up his baton.

In the truck, the tension is even higher than it was earlier. “Take! Take! Take!” Cosel is ordering, his voice tight. The orchestra finishes the first number, and he relaxes for an instant. “Nice moves, everybody,” he says through the headset. “Very pretty.” The music starts again, and he tenses. “Get tighter on the flute if you can, really much tighter,” he orders. “There’s too many heads there.” He stares at the screen, then barks, “Who the hell is that? Why’s he sitting forward?” He glares at the errant clarinetist onscreen. “He’s killing us! Is there anybody here from personnel?”

BSO managing director Mark Volpe, who has been watching from behind, speaks up. “I’ll go check on it, Bill.”

Volpe leaves. “He’s gonna be killing us all night,” Cosel mutters at the screen.

The number ends, and onscreen a door opens behind the woodwinds. A woman walks out and speaks in the clarinetist’s ear. He scoots his chair back, and Cosel moves on to the next shot.

“You can’t beat the thing over the head,” he had said earlier. “You’ll never find perfection. And, you know, maybe that’s OK.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.