JOHN WILLIAMS IS NEW POPS MAESTRO
A MUSICIAN’S MUSICIAN By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, January 11th, 1980
John Williams of Los Angeles, composer of film music and winner of three Academy Awards, has been chosen to succeed the late Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops. The announcement was made simultaneously in Boston and London yesterday by the management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Williams, 47, who is in London for a recording commitment, said: “For a musician to be asked to stand in front of them (members of the Boston Symphony who make up the Pops orchestra) is the greatest honor anyone in the profession could have.”
LONDON – The management and trustees of the Boston Pops have had their hands full, solving the problem of the Future of the Pops, finding someone to Fill Arthur Fiedler’s Shoes, answering, in short, The Maiden’s Prayer.
And now they have John Williams.
If you look at this decision in one way, it might seem a longshot: What the management of the Pops has done is follow the most famous, most public conductor in the world with someone who has relatively little experience and reputation as a conductor of public concerts. Although he has appeared with half a dozen leading American orchestras, including the Boston Pops, John Williams has made his unrivaled reputation in several other fields of the music business.
But Andre Previn, Williams’ friend and colleague for more than two decades, warns against worrying along these lines. Reached in Berlin shortly before he was to conduct a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic, Previn said: “Anybody who thinks John Williams is just a Hollywood musician’ is completely wrong. He is such a good musician, so thorough, so completely schooled. John is damned fortunate at this stage of his career that the job at the Pops should be open.
“As I said to him recently, Why do you want to spend the rest of your life in a frightening goddamn city like Los Angeles? You’ve got nothing left to prove out there.’ At the same time the Pops is lucky that John is available. He is a first-class pianist, and he knows a terrific amount of music. Furthermore, he knows the orchestra from the point of view of the man with the pencil, and that means intimately. He can make superlative arrangements of pop materials, and he can edit, fix, handle anything that comes up in someone else’s arrangement, make it better, and all in a matter of minutes. That’s quite rare among conductors. Did I say rare? That’s being polite. It’s unique.
“He is also a very efficient conductor; the players of the London Symphony Orchestra, who have recorded several film scores with him, are full of admiration. They say there’s no nonsense about him, that he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.”
John Williams has a background that is every bit as varied as Arthur Fiedler’s was 50 years ago – and it is important to remember that Fiedler’s selection was a longshot too – and he has amassed impressive credentials in several areas of music.
Born in New York in 1932, Williams studied music both at UCLA and at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was a piano pupil of the dreaded Russian pedagogue, Mme. Rosina Lhevinne, who produced some of the greatest keyboard virtuosos of our day (and at least one great conductor, James Levine). In these same years, Williams was beginning his activity as a composer; composition was his second major, and at 19, he wrote a piano sonata.
His keyboard facility was what led him into his career in the movies. During his New York years, he was active as a jazz pianist, often working with the leading musicians of the day both in clubs and on recordings (Williams’ First Symphony contains a musical tribute to Eric Dolphy). After Juilliard, Williams returned to California because his family was there, and he went to work almost immediately in the film studios: He was the pianist for such famous musical films as “South Pacific” and “West Side Story,” and he worked for giants of the film music business like Alfred Newman and Jerry Goldsmith. He made arrangements for pop singers like Vic Damone. This, in turn, led to writing music for television during its so-called Golden Age (programs like Kraft Theater and Playhouse 90), and, in time, for the movies.
Williams has served as composer, or musical director, for more than 50 films, big commercial exercises like “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Diamond Head,” as well as smaller, unpretentious, and artistic films like the Faulkner picture, “The Reivers,” Robert Altman’s “Images.” His own favorite score, he said a few years ago, was the romantic one he wrote for the television film of “Jane Eyre.”
“Johnny served a tough apprenticeship,” recalled his longtime friend Lionel Newman (Newman is vice president for music at Twentieth Century-Fox). “He did cops-and-robbers movies, writing Fender-bass things with bongos. It didn’t take him long to grow out of that. Now he writes for films the way one would write an opera; he develops the characters dramatically through the music he writes. What he does enhances the film; he doesn’t just write musical sequences, the way so many others do. Furthermore, he has taught us to use the full orchestra; in the old days, 50-60 men on a picture was considered a large orchestra – now, because of him, you can’t think of a big movie without thinking of using a full symphony orchestra. He is a tremendous conductor; he knows how to rehearse thoroughly and carefully, and well within the time limits a budget imposes. But his biggest contribution may have been to make people aware of the importance of music to films; his work has stimulated the use of music in films.”
The music Williams wrote for “Jaws” represented movement onto a new plateau of commercial success after nearly 20 hard-working years in the business. Steven Spielberg was so impressed with his work on that film that he recommended him to George Lucas who was making “Star Wars,” the picture that
put moods and melodies by John Williams into the minds of millions of people around the world. The “Star Wars” soundtrack album sold more than 4 million copies, which was the largest sale of any soundtrack album, and indeed of any nonpop album, in history.
Since then, Williams has consolidated his position, moving from success to success, with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman,” and “Dracula.” It is safe to say that Williams is now the most sought-after composer of film music in the world. He has three Oscars, two Emmys and he has been nominated 13 times for an Academy Award.
In his “spare time,” Williams has been active writing concert music. His “Essay for Strings,” commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation, has been extensively played by American university symphony orchestras; the work for symphonic bands that he wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Eastman School of Music has been recorded. Andre Previn conducted his First Symphony in Houston and in London, and this summer will conduct the Flute Concerto both in London and in Pittsburgh. The Violin Concerto – “an absolutely wonderful piece,” Previn says – will be heard in St. Louis next year with Mark Piskunov, and Henryk Szering reportedly plans to take it into his repertory.
Previn did not want to talk about Williams’ role in terms of film music – “He seems to have done endless films, and he writes them very well” – but stressed the quality of his concert works. “I have nothing but admiration for him. The way John writes when he writes for himself has nothing to do with his film music – except that in all the music he writes, he is an absolutely superb orchestrator.”
It is obvious that Williams has much to gain from his new connection with the Pops. If he wants to be a public figure, he is a major one, starting yesterday – the music director of the Boston Pops automatically becomes one of the most famous musicians in the world, and one of the most sought-after as a guest.
His new position will bring him an opportunity to interpret some of the masterpieces of the standard repertory, music that he has known intimately
from the vantage point of the composer; he can also bring his own works forward, as well as exploring byways that interest him. Ultimately, the music director of the Boston Pops has a lot to do with the formation of musical taste in America.
It is equally obvious that the Pops has a lot to gain from its connection with Williams – and not just in the potential revenue from “Star Wars” concerts. Now it has a music director who can make his own arrangements for the popular part of the program at the highest level of professional skill that exists today. It has a music director who is commercially viable to the recording companies (and the Pops has not had a really satisfactory recording arrangement in years). It has somebody who will “look good” on television, and who has the kind of modest wit that will perhaps make him an attractive public personality. There is even, who knows, the possibility that Williams can get the Pops into the lucrative world of recording for films. The London Symphony Orchestra is one of the great musical ensembles in the world, and its work recording Williams’ scores for the movies has substantially subsidized some of its more serious activities.
Many questions will remain unanswered even after that first Williams concert with the Pops scheduled for Carnegie Hall Jan. 22. How willing will Williams be to give his full energies to what is a full-time job? His friends have the utmost confidence in him, but there will be a lot of “woodshedding” to do – “it is one thing to know the music, another to perform it,” says Newman.
“Johnny may have to learn more about showmanship – he is a very reserved, very private person. But there is nothing he cannot develop into – I know because I have seen him do it.” And there is always the problem of standing in the shadow of Arthur Fiedler’s image. “I have warned him that the danger could be in trying to imitate the Fiedler formula for success too closely,” Previn says. “I told him he would be a fool to imitate the Old Man; Arthur Fiedler was something unique.”
The best thing for the Pops’ vast public to do is to wait 50 years to see if Williams has solved the problem of The Future of the Pops, if he has Filled Arthur Fiedler’s Shoes, if he has answered The Maiden’s Prayer. For the moment, all we need to know is that there is a real musician in charge of the Pops, a superbly equipped musician with an ear, a mind and a heart.