DAVID MUGAR was driving inbound on Commonwealth Avenue, his car gliding through the stillness of the early morning, when he worked up the nerve to ask the man sitting next to him the question he’d been mulling for weeks.
“Mr. Fiedler,” Mugar began — he always called the Boston Pops maestro Mr. Fiedler, never Arthur — “I’ve been thinking about the concerts on the Esplanade . . . ”
It was late summer 1973, and the concerts, which Mugar had loved growing up, were languishing. The Esplanade series Fiedler had founded in 1929 to liberate the orchestra from Symphony Hall and provide free music for the masses had dwindled to a few dates each summer, the crowd sparse and graying. Fiedler by then was wielding the baton for just one of those shows, typically around the Fourth, conducting a mix of Gershwin and Sousa. No fireworks, no Tchaikovsky.
“What do you think about playing the 1812 Overture?” asked Mugar, who had heard the piece at Tanglewood. “If you do that, I could try to find some live cannons, not just use the kettle drums . . . and some live church bells. . . . And then what do you think about the idea of throwing fireworks in at the end?”
With those tentative questions, Mugar wasn’t trying to create one of Boston’s signature events, draw millions to his hometown, or breathe new life into Tchaikovsky’s ode to the Russian army, let alone change the way much of America celebrates the Fourth — though he would do all that. Forty years ago, he was just hoping Fiedler would say yes.
Though Mugar was part of the conductor’s small inner circle, they seemed at first glance an unlikely duo: the white-haired Fiedler at 78 as cantankerous as he was beloved and so famous that when the Beatles first came to Boston they were asked about him, and Mugar, a dimpled 34-year-old who listened more than he spoke and who had managed a Star Market branch until his family sold the supermarket chain.
The Mugar family helped underwrite the Pops, but that had little to do with their friendship. The two men were “sparks,” spectators for whom firefighting is more thrilling than football. Mugar would swing by every Friday and Saturday night to Fiedler’s big brick house in Brookline, police scanner crackling, Nikon camera on the back seat, and Fiedler would climb in, often swathed in an overcoat and eager to talk about anything other than music. They would crisscross the city, hanging out in parking lots and at diners with newspaper reporters and photographers, waiting for the scanner to come alive. Boston was more of a tinderbox then — more smokers and combustible space heaters; fewer sprinklers, alarms, and fire codes — and the two men saw a lot of it burn. Though some around them were drawn by the conflagration and destruction, Mugar and Fiedler relished watching the firefighters come together in unison, their chief commanding the scene like the conductor of an orchestra.
Still, Fiedler wasn’t big on unsolicited advice, so Mugar waited until he was relaxed as they drove that morning in his Chevrolet. They reached Dartmouth and the Hotel Vendome, where the two had watched solemnly the year before as rescuers picked through the rubble to find the bodies of nine firefighters after part of the building collapsed.
Take a shot, David, Mugar told himself, and he sprang the question.
The conductor’s eyes flickered; he flashed an impish smile. “Sounds great,” he replied. “Just let all hell break loose at the end.”
And so they did.
WHAT THEY UNLEASHED, 40 years out, is an annual rite that draws half a million or more to the banks of the Charles River Basin each Independence Day, an estimated one-third coming from beyond New England. Meanwhile, all across the country, from small-town bandstands to the National Mall, crowds on the Fourth witness local replications of our event: Tchaikovsky’s overture with cannon fire and church bells, married to fireworks. Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, tells Mugar that the overture’s rebirth will be his greatest legacy, transforming a piece about Russia outlasting Napoleon’s invasion into a widely hummed tune evoking stars-and-stripes glory.
At 74, Mugar has a boyish enthusiasm, a Brahmin accent — he is half Yankee, half Armenian-American — and the easy, welcoming manner of a favorite middle school teacher now in retirement. He inherited a fortune and grew it into a larger one through an array of business ventures, including commercial real estate and communications. Twice divorced, he has downshifted from work in recent years, though not from the Fourth, to which he devotes hundreds of hours annually.Continued...