PRIDE AND THE POPS
A GALA OPENING TONIGHT By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page 65, May 5th, 1987
Last Tuesday night, well after 11 o’clock, John Williams recorded the final notes of his score for “The Witches of Eastwick.” “The last musical chore,” he said, “was to record two Presbyterian hymns with a church choir — remember, this story takes place in New England.”
By Thursday he was in New England, and Saturday he began rehearsals for his eighth season as conductor of the Boston Pops, which opens tonight with a gala concert featuring Tony Bennett.
Before the first rehearsal, Williams energetically paced the Green Room upstairs as he had his picture taken, exchanged pleasantries with Boston Symphony assistant conductor Carl St. Clair, and talked about “Witches” and the forthcoming season.
” ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ will be out late in June, and I’m very taken with it. The script simplifies the novel — there are fewer characters and a different ending — but it is beautifully written. Jack Nicholson is the leading man and the three women are Michele Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher, who is a deeply good actress. Part of my job was to write different kinds of music for three large-scale seduction scenes. One of the women is a cellist, and at one point the climax of the Dvorak Concerto sweeps into the Love Theme
from ‘The Witches of Eastwick.’ I hope Tony Dvorak won’t mind!”
Williams will be with the Pops for two months, including a cross-country tour with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra to be underwritten by Nabisco. In the fall, he goes to work on a new Steven Spielberg film, “Empire of the Sun,” which will have a script by Tom Stoppard. “It’s a story about the Japanese capture of Singapore, and we will record the score in London the last week in September.”
After that, he dreams about doing a big musical with Spielberg. “I have the feeling there is a huge public waiting to stand in line to see a beautifully mounted movie musical with gorgeous tunes. I think this is the right time to do it. Steve is certainly the right person for it, and I hope I am.”
In the meantime Williams has his hands full with the Pops. His achievements with the Pops have been considerable, but he seems proudest that this season will mark the orchestra’s 18th season on television. “That is a sign that there has been no diminution of the appeal of the Pops and that its place in the affection of the public is secure.” Not all of the television dates are set, but Sammy Davis Jr. will appear on one program and Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade on another. Negotiations are under way with a famous violinist, a pop singer who is an American legend, and a puckish jazz pianist. Johnny Cash will appear with the Esplanade Orchestra in the Hatch Shell — “on the Fourth of July, our fans will be happy to know,” Williams says, alluding to the controversial decision for the orchestra to perform on the holiday in the Statue of Liberty celebrations last year.
Williams’ records with the Pops are consistent best-sellers, and he is proud of them. ” ‘Pops in Love,’ our current release, is not just a symphonic mood album,” Williams says. “Seiji Ozawa’s choices of personnel have been felt. The special quality of the playing of flutist Leone Buyse and oboist Al
Genovese and the other principals puts it on another level. The brass playing on our Bernstein album is hair-raising, and I think our recording of ‘The Planets’ is quite splendid.”
This year there will be two new recordings — “which is all there will be time for. One will be a ‘digital jukebox’ of Pops classics, most of them in new arrangements. The other album I want to call ‘On The Village Green’
because I think everyone is unconsciously looking for air. It will be a bucolic record, with music by Delius, with a dash of Yorkshire flavor in the music I composed for ‘Jane Eyre,’ and ‘An Orkney Wedding,’ the piece that Peter Maxwell Davies composed for the Pops. That closes with a bagpipe climax, and I want to end the record with a full band of pipes and drums making the most deafening noise imaginable in something like ‘Scotland the Brave’ or ‘Loch Lomond.’ This will really test the transistors of everyone’s home equipment.”
There will be some new repertory for the Pops this year: The Oregon-based Childs Foundation has imaginatively supported the Pops by underwriting new arrangements. “This year a new Jerome Kern medley is coming in, and a selection of spring tunes like ‘April Showers’ and ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over,’ and an amusing medley of train songs — ‘Sentimental Journey,’ ‘Take the A Train,’ ‘Alabamy Bound,’ and ‘The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.’ I’m also particularly happy that this year for the first time we will have a collection of country tunes, a Nashville medley. This is a whole rich vein of American music, some of it transplanted from Scotch and Irish music. Our arranger, Joe Reismann, produced many records in Nashville and he has an intimate knowledge of this field. He is also an expert orchestrator for symphonic ensembles, so I think this will be something special. I think the public will be happy to hear it when we introduce it on the Esplanade on the Fourth of July.”
The season’s other conductors will include Harry Ellis Dickson, Carl St. Clair, Max Hobart, Michael Lankaster, Erich Kunzel, Bruce Hangan, John Mauceri and, making his debut, British film composer Bill Conti (“Rocky”). “Harry Ellis Dickson is officially retiring this year, but he will be conducting quite a bit and helping out the way he always does. He doesn’t need any accolades from me, but everyone should know that he has contributed more to the Pops than anyone who is still with us. I want his help for as long as he wants to help us.”
Williams is candid about saying that many of the problems that have troubled the Pops during his tenure have not yet found solutions. “The best I can say is that some kind of process is under way. I am not satisfied, and I feel we need to do more. We have had a number of new pieces composed for us, for example. Some of them were good, some less interesting, but we need to have more of them, and we need more success with the whole idea of new pieces. There are still too many concerts, I think, and not enough rehearsal time. One way around the problem of inadequate rehearsal is to cut down on the diversity of the programs. But too many repetitions of the same material is also demoralizing. Finding the right mix, the right balance, is a never-ending challenge, and our popularity is sometimes not helpful. After 18 years on television, everything we play has been on, so we need new material. We also need it for the records. But that leads to overwork. We should never do more than we are able to do well. No matter how difficult the situation is, we have to insist on quality.”
Asked about the continuing controversy about the role of the second Pops orchestra (the Esplanade Orchestra, which spells the BSO during the first few weeks of the season and takes over completely when the BSO heads for Tanglewood), Williams says, “I have a very simple philosophy about this. It can be proven that the activities of the Esplanade Orchestra are beneficial to the BSO, and therefore the Esplanade Orchestra is a positive thing. The success of the Pops has created a larger public demand than the BSO itself can meet. Quality control is certainly enforced in the Esplanade Orchestra; many of the players are regular substitutes in the BSO and the Pops. The management has not turned it into a purely commercial enterprise, and the Esplanade Orchestra has a limited season — I can’t, and don’t want to, work with the Pops all year, and I don’t think there should be constant quickie jobs and runouts. Of course the BSO and the Pops should retain their identity for recordings, but frankly I don’t see anything wrong with the status quo. Our Fourth of July Statue of Liberty Show with the Esplanade Orchestra had the strongest ratings of anything from that weekend of television coverage, and the director of our show won an Emmy — in L.A. he took out an ad to thank the orchestra.”
While Williams won’t say that many of the problems he has faced have gone away, he is proud of some things he has achieved with the Pops. “We have refreshened the repertory, and I am proud of the sound we make. There is a problem with the richness of Symphony Hall and the type of orchestrations we use. When I came, there was a weightiness I have tried to streamline. I’ve tried to resist the fat bel canto sound, and we have worked towards something leaner and more incisive. I know it will be politically difficult, but now we need to experiment with electronic enhancement of the sound. In the ambient atmosphere of Symphony Hall, and with an audience that is eating and drinking and having a good time, there’s a real lack of control over the way we sound, and some experiments with electronics might give us some of that control.”
Williams is characteristically guarded when it comes to discussing his
plans for a future with the Pops. Asked if he finds his job with the Pops rewarding, he says, “This is a very complicated assignment. A lot of it is pleasurable and some of it is difficult. I will be here a lot this season, 10 weeks, counting the tour and the Christmas Pops, but I haven’t organized a schedule beyond that into next year. I need to get to know the new manager, Ken Haas, and find out his plans and see how well they coincide with my own. I need to see how he picks up on my feelings about what we need to do. Like any job, this is a gratifying and exciting opportunity. It is also a responsibility full of burdens, choices and problems. I’m doing the best I know how to do with it.”
PRIDE AND THE POPS