‘Q&A with John Williams’ (1980)

The Boston Globe, April 27th, 1980

John Williams, the new conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, came to lunch at The Globe a week ago. He didn’t get much chance to eat because editors and reporters badgered him with questions. He responded to everything as fully and patiently and carefully as he could, always looking his questioner in the eye. Here are some of the questions and answers, as transcribed and edited by Globe music critic

Q. Why would anyone give up everything you’ve given up to come to a town like Boston and a place like the Pops?
A. I don’t feel I’ve given up anything; instead I have added something new and exciting to my life. I do plan to continue writing film music: visibility in that area is important to me, and it could be important, in an oblique way, to the Pops. Of necessity I will have to do fewer films. But in the last 20 years I have done about 60 pictures, and it will feel good to take a breather from that. In any case, I am more a musician than a man of Hollywood, and the attraction of this new position is the orchestra itself. After all, this is one of the great ensembles of the world, and any musician would find the opportunity to work with them every day irresistible.

Q. What sort of changes do you envision for the Pops?
A. Arthur Fiedler’s tripartite program is a terrific format – the configuration of an opening section of older classical music, a middle section featuring some kind of concerto soloist, and a final third of pop music. The most noticeable changes will be in the third part; we’ve got to try to update the Pops library, to add some new pieces. On our opening show next Tuesday night we have a marvelous new bit that I’m already very proud of.
Stephen Sondheim looms very large in the history of our theater in the last 10 years, but I was shocked to realize that none of his work, apart from an odd few arrangements of “Send in the Clowns’ is available for orchestra. So we got Jonathan Tunick, who of the new generation of orchestrators seems to me the very best, to prepare a medley from “A Little Night Music.” This gives you an idea of the kind of things we can do; we need to take the best of the music that is around and put it into shape for orchestral performance.
The first third of the program, too, will see some changes. In May we will be playing more than 60 numbers in the first part of the evening, and of them approximately 35 percent are things the orchestra hasn’t seen before, at least in this context. That’s good, I think: It keeps the interest of the players up, piques the interest of the audience. And for the orchestra’s centennial, we have commissioned a festive overture from John Corigliano, who is a wonderfully talented young composer. I’d like to have one or two pieces like that every year, pieces that can take their place alongside Bernstein’s “Candide” overture as a permanent part of the Pops repertory.
But for all this kind of change, the word I keep using is “continuity.” The Pops is a great institution, a great forum. Over the years the public came to think of Arthur Fiedler as a beautiful old gentleman, but in fact for him change was what the Pops was all about. Within Fiedler’s format, we are going to try to introduce a healthy amount of change, for the future of the Pops in the next decade largely depends on the kinds of changes we can make now.

Q. Will you be composing for the Pops?
A. Of course. On our first program next Tuesday night we will have “The Reivers.” Burgess Meredith will read passages from Faulkner’s novel along with my musical triptych. The central part of that is derived from the thematic material of the score I wrote for the film, but the outer panels are new. You know, the only time I ever actually spoke to Arthur Fiedler was when he rang me up last year and asked me to write a “brilliant 5-minute march” for his 50th anniversary concert. I had film commitments then, and I couldn’t do it. But I want to do it now.

Q. In addition to the musical changes, do you plan to alter the visual presentation for the television audience?
A. I hope so. TV is very important to musical presentation. Arthur Fiedler is the best example I know of a person who was in the best sense of the word a
popularizer, and in the last few years he did that by reaching millions through television. The challenge is to do more than to show the conductor waving his hands and the closeup of the clarinetist moving his fingers during his solo bit. The Pops has a good television producer in Bill Cosel, who is a creative young fellow with wonderful ideas. Given our restrictions of time and budget, he wants to take the Pops out of the hall, to experiment with sound- over exterior work that will be artful, to do special visual things that will contribute to the ambience, the mood, of each particular piece. One of the things I want to do for next year is to arrange a Christmas show with Perry Como. He has been all over the world, but I don’t remember him doing a Grandma Moses kind of American Christmas. Boston is the place to do that, and the Pops the orchestra to do it with.

Q. How do the members of the orchestra feel about playing Pops material?
A. A symphony orchestra, like everything else, is made up of individuals, and some have more liberal views than others. Most of the people I know these days understand the value of the Beatles and they are able to evaluate their talent, which was considerable. No musician who knows anything can put down Cole Porter – the turns of phrase that he spun out are as good as anything in music. Most of the younger brass and wind players coming out of the conservatories these days can bridge any gap – most of them know about pop music, most of them have played in pop bands. There is not as much snobbism as there used to be. Brass players, and percussion players, in any case tend to enjoy the Pops; they will sit around for two and a half movements of a Beethoven symphony before they are able to play anything. And here they blow the whole show.

Q. Aren’t some of today’s pop idioms completely incompatible with the sound of the symphony orchestra?
A. Well, there are some things that shouldn’t be tried. A symphony orchestra is never going to swing the way a jazz band does, it is never going to rock the way a rock band does. In arranging music for the Pops it is important not to ask musicians to do something they shouldn’t do, and that they can not do. As an instrument, the symphony orchestra is one of the greatest inventions of man’s mind. And as it has evolved for the last 200 years, it has become capable of a tremendous range of expression. But turned- on, amplified sound is not one of them. I do think, though, that there are some rock musicians today who have had good conservatory training, and some of those people may be capable of making a nice fusion of the rock-pop thing and the orchestra. I keep talking about Keith Emerson’s piano concerto, which is a very creditable work; he is the kind of person who might be able to bring these things together.

Q. What about the arrangements that are already in the Pops library that sound dated today? Is there anything you can do about them?
A. Some of our greatest composers were song writers who were not orchestrators in the way that the great classical composers were. Their work has come to us through the work of an outside orchestrator. Some of these composers were very lucky: I think of Richard Rodgers, who had Robert Russell Bennett working for him throughout most of his career. To my ear, to my mind, Bennett’s work is the right way to orchestrate Rodgers’s music, and when you play something of his in 2080 in a Bennett arrangement it is going to sound right. But most of our songwriters were not as lucky as that, and most of their work is in very poor shape. Gershwin is in pretty good shape, because Ferde Grofe was around, but most of the work of his contemporaries is in unspeakable condition. In the period between the First World War and about 1950 there was an explosion of creativity, but there are no definitive orchestral versions of the work of Porter, of Irving Berlin, of Harold Arlen, a major writer, of Harry Warren, of Jimmy McHugh, of Jerome Kern, who may have been the greatest of them all.
One of the things I would like to see done for future generations not only of Americans but of everyone would be to have this treasure of ours put into shape for orchestra. I don’t claim to be the prophet who can do it all, but the Pops is the kind of place where a lot of this kind of work could be done – the Pops is supposed to be the custodian of American popular music, and this is part of its job. Doing this work might engender a whole new phase of creativity, for that kind of musical explosion is going to happen again. Some generation of our kids, or of our grandchildren, will do it.

Q. Tell us about your movie work, and its potential relationship to your activity at the Pops.
A. When I started in the film studios in the middle ’50s each studio had its own contract orchestra, some of them with as many as 70 players. When I was just coming out of school, I auditioned for Columbia and then, a year or so later, I also went to Fox. So as a very young musician I was playing for all of the greats of the film industry – Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiompkin . . . I knew them all well because I played the piano for them. Later some of them came to me and asked me if I could orchestrate, and as a man with all the temerity of youth, I said “sure.”
I was very lucky because I found myself on the inside when I was still a youngster. First I orchestrated the music of the others, then I was writing my own. I came to conducting out of self-defense, because some of those studio music directors were, to put it kindly, not among the great musicians of the world.
How does this relate to Pops? Well, without wanting to sound pretentious, I think that film is going to engender a lot of important music. The audio- visual thing that films represent is after all still in its infancy – we’ve had only about 50 years of sound film, so we have to think of it as still in its infancy. I am well aware of the argument that music shouldn’t have visuals, that music is exclusively an aural experience; I also know that there is some kind of physiological reaction that sets in – if something is visually striking, then we listen less attentively. Nevertheless I don’t think any of us can have any idea where the audio-visual combination can lead. The Pops can be a wonderful forum to pick up and re-examine the best bits of what has already been done.

Q. Aren’t the constraints on a composer of film music unimaginably frustrating?
A. In many ways writing for film is very restricted. If you have 2 minutes 31 seconds to do something, you can’t have more if you think you need it. Then you find yourself acoustically in competition with wagon wheels, gunshots, space ships sweeping back and forth, and you thank God for the soundtrack lp where the public can get the other 80 percent of the music they never heard in the film. And the problems continue right down to the level of the neighborhood theater, where the reproduction equipment is in bad shape. It is soul-destroying, if you think about it. But you can also think of it as sympathetically human; like everything worth doing, it is full of difficulties. It is no less a problem in the theater, which is difficult for musicians because of the highly collaborative nature of the work.

Q. Do you have any favorites from among your film scores?
A. I think of them all like my children. I love them all, and I find them all very different. And there are aspects of each one that I dislike and wish I could have improved upon. Working in film one has to develop a kind of chameleon technique, a fluency in different idioms – every film requires a different type of musical touch. Nothing could be more different than the music for “Star Wars” and the music for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Q. Have you found any difficulties in moving from the world of the recording studio to live performance in front of audiences?
A. In one of the first concerts I did in London some little thing went wrong, and my first instinct was to stop and turn around and say, “Let’s do another take.” In the clinically quiet atmosphere of the studio if something goes wrong, you can stop and begin all over again. But in one sense working with an orchestra is always the same, for my attention is always on the music in a kind of clinical way, trying to anticipate problems, trying to express what is there. When I am conducting I am unaware that there is an audience out there really. When I conducted the Pops as a guest last May, people told me I waited too long between numbers. My natural impulse was to wait until the audience quieted down, to wait for that pregnant pause before the music begins. But the din never stopped.

Q. What are your feelings about the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Pops in comparison to other orchestras?
A. The sound of the strings in that hall is really something ravishing – that’s the wonderful thing about an old wooden box, which is Symphony Hall, and another old wooden box, which is the fiddle. The two of them sympathetically vibrate, and you have a certain kind of music-making that doesn’t happen in any other place. If there is a “string problem” in Los Angeles, it has something to do with the acoustics of the hall there. It is a cold, brittle room, and the lower end of the frequency range is not flattered; the players struggle and that affects the sound. People talk about the brass of the Chicago Symphony or the London Symphony Orchestra; it’s just a question of different emphasis. The brass in those orchestras is a little more extrovert, a little jazzier, a little edgier, more brilliant, biting. Chicago has a very theatrical, very brilliant brass section. The Boston sound is round and beautifully produced and carefully projected, something I think of as a bit more classical and conservative. The London Symphony is a very “hot” orchestra, its decibel level is large, and the orchestra looms at the audience in a very vigorous, athletic way. Boston has a more contemplative, sedate way of playing in comparison; it is a beautiful, classical orchestra that is aided by a fabulous hall that shapes the sound in that particular way.

Q. What about the non-musical side of your life?
A. It’s all so boring – I am a workaholic, my children say. I have three children, a daughter 23, and sons 21 and 20; my wife passed away a few years ago. My children are all in California, but they will come up to Boston to witness all of this, and that will be nice. I do hit golf balls or tennis balls from time to time, but mine has basically been a working musical life. I love to play chamber music, which I do in California for fun; I even give concerts two or three times a year in local universities with my chamber-music buddies.

Q. What do you know now that you didn’t know back in January when you accepted the job?
A. So far, I don’t know very much more about Boston – I can tell you about the inside of my hotel and some of the rooms in Symphony Hall. I haven’t even been out to the Esplanade yet – I’ve just seen it on television, Arthur Fiedler and 400,000 people. That was fantastic, I’ve rented a house on Beacon Hill, and I will be there until the middle of August, and getting to know the city is going to be fun.