‘John Williams Begins 10th Year in Tune with Pops’ (1989)

The Boston Globe, page B37, May 7th, 1989
Arthur Fiedler piloted the Boston Pops for 50 years, and now John Williams is almost a fifth of the way there: The season that opens Tuesday night will be Williams’ 10th as conductor. Although he has never attempted to match Fiedler’s high public profile — perhaps because he has never attempted to — Williams has found his own secure place in the affections of an international public. A very private person, Williams is still startled when total strangers stop him in a hotel lobby somewhere and ask for his autograph.
“I don’t want an image,” says a newly slimmed-down Williams, whose major career is in Hollywood, world capital of image-making. “But I’ll admit, the reception the Pops gets everywhere it goes gives me a glow. But the glow belongs to the whole Boston community that has created the Pops and kept it going; Boston ought to know that the glow is there all over the country, in fact all over the world.”
Williams has big plans for the current Pops season, including a major celebration of the 20th consecutive season on television’s Public Broadcasting Service (Ch. 2 in Boston), a special program that will feature soprano Roberta Peters and baritone Robert Merrill in nostalgic duets, comic pianist Victor Borge and Art Buchwald delivering his new narration for Saint-Saens’ ”Carnival of the Animals,” which will feature the Paratore Brothers, who were launched on their international careers by this piece and the Pops. “You can imagine that Buchwald’s new text will deal not only with animals, but with political animals,” Williams says.
Among the other television programs of the season will be the opening-night program featuring soprano Kathleen Battle and saxophonist Branford Marsalis in a tribute to Duke Ellington; a country music evening starring Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle; Carol Channing in a joint appearance with clarinetist Eddie Daniels; a Broadway evening with Mandy Patinkin and Barbara Cook; and Andre Previn playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F. “I’m also hoping to lure Andre into conducting a piece or two,” Williams acknowledges.
Williams is particularly eager to emphasize the two new works that have been commissioned for the Pops this season, Joseph Schwantner’s ”Freeflight,” which will be heard on opening night, and William Kraft’s ”Vintage Renaissance,” which will have its premiere early in June. This has been an important part of Williams’ agenda from the beginning, and he is very proud that one of these special Pops commissions, Peter Maxwell Davies’ ”An Orkney Wedding: With Sunrise,” has now entered the standard international repertory. “Oliver Knussen has promised us a piece, and I hope he finishes it before I’m too old to conduct it. John Adams has also agreed to write for the Pops.”
There will be a number of new arrangements this season as well — an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley (“we’ve needed this”), some new Irving Berlin items, a cafe-society medley, a group of choo-choo songs (“The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” etc.), some pieces from the current hit “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” and a new suite from “Porgy and Bess” that Williams hopes will include some beloved melodies like “I Loves You Porgy” that Robert Russell Bennett did not incorporate in the standard suite. Asked if he plans to include anything recent of his own, Williams says he may program music from the score from “The Accidental Tourist.” And if the latest Indiana Jones picture (“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) is the hit everyone expects it to be, he can hardly avoid pulling out the famous march from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Williams himself thinks this third picture of the series is the best.
The Pops will fulfill its decade-long contract with Philips Records with two new CDs. “We haven’t done any Gershwin, so it’s time. We’ll do the new ‘Porgy’ Suite, ‘An American in Paris,’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ We’re casting for a pianist now — no, I won’t do it myself because it would take a month of hard work for these tired old bones to make a decent enough sound. It takes some muscle to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue.”‘
The guest conductors for the season will be Harry Ellis Dickson, the new assistant conductor Ronald Feldman (“He is personable and I feel sure he will be successful”), Carl St. Clair, Harry Rabinowitz, Bruce Hangan, Erich Kunzel, John Covelli, Michael Lankaster and Jonathan McPhee. Williams is also interested in attracting some mainstream conductors onto the Pops podium, and reports he has had “interesting” conversations on this subject with Boston Symphony guest conductor Yuri Termirkanov, among others.
Williams himself will be here for six weeks with the Pops, conducting three or four times a week. Then, after three weeks of vacation, he will return for the final two weeks of the season of the alternate free-lance Pops Esplanade orchestra. This season, in a new experiment, the Esplanade orchestra will return to Symphony Hall for a week in July after the annual free concerts in the Hatch Shell. Williams will also lead the Esplanade Orchestra on a two- week, 10-city American tour this summer; in June 1990, he will lead the Boston Pops on a tour of Japan.
This has been an exceptionally busy year for Williams as a composer for films. In addition to “The Accidental Tourist” and the Indiana Jones picture, Williams has composed the music for a new Jane Fonda/Robert De Niro film about illiteracy called “Stanley and Iris.” He is working on Oliver Stone’s new film about a Vietnam veteran, starring Tom Cruise, called “Born on the Fourth of July.”
“I saw a rough cut, and I was staggered by this film — it may be the most powerful film I have ever seen. It sounds pretentious to say I was ‘inspired,’ but I knew immediately I had to do it, and I knew immediately how to do it. I want to score it for trumpet and strings.”
Before the year is over, he will also write the score for a new Steven Spielberg film called “A Guy Named Joe,” a remake of a popular World War II picture; Richard Dreyfuss takes the Spencer Tracy role.
“Writing music is my working life,” says Williams. “This is what I do. I go to the studio every morning and I compose two minutes of music. After a while, it adds up — there’s an hour and 50 minutes of music in the Indiana Jones film, and you know that all of it requires the full orchestra, going prestissimo. That’s a lot of notes. There’s 40 minutes of music in the Fonda film, and 50 in ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ ”
Asked to sum up his feelings about a decade at the Pops, Williams says, ”That’s hard. So much has changed — and so little. That’s the way tradition works; change comes in very small increments. I don’t think it’s complacent to point out that the popularity of the Pops does not seem to have diminished at all. But we have to be alert to the danger signs. The traditional source of the Pops repertory is the Broadway stage, and now there’s very little new music that people want to live with, that they want to keep. So we have to keep up the search for a repertoire, finding new things, and discarding things that no longer work. The Pops is famous for delivering a certain glowing good feeling that it must produce each and every time out. The amazing thing is that it does.”
Williams promises additional “surprises” for the Pops season. But he acknowledges he’s about to receive a surprise himself. His wife, photographer Samantha Winslow, has been building a new house in Telluride, Colo.; she came across the site on one of her periodic mountain-climbing expeditions. Williams has not seen the site, although he has avidly studied all the maps and plans and followed the progress of the construction, which is scheduled for completion early in July. It doesn’t sound like the house will be an escapist retreat, however. That’s not the John Williams style. “It’s not a huge house, just a few thousand square feet. There will be room for a piano. I wonder if there’s a good piano tuner in Telluride . . .”