‘John Williams’ Pursuit of Excellence’ (1989)

By Marian Christy, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page 21, July 4th, 1989
John Williams, conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra since l980, describes himself as a cool professional.
“I don’t have the aspect of extrovertedness,” he says softly. “I can’t entertain with flourishes. That’s not in my personality.”
But in this interview, conducted in a private studio at Symphony Hall, Williams reveals his vulnerabilities and his intensities. A perfectionist who temporarily resigned his Pops position in 1984, the 57-year-old Williams says admits that maturity has made him more peaceful about himself and his career.
He also reveals his continuing obsession with music when he cites his favorite bedtime reading: a score of Beethoven sonatas that sits on his nightstand. “It reads like a novel!” he says.
Williams first rose to prominence as the composer of music for films. He has scored 80 movies, including some of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers, and has won four Oscars (for “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Fiddler on the Roof”). He has also won two Emmys and 15 Grammys.
Born in Flushing, N.Y., Williams studied music at the University of California at Los Angeles, at Los Angeles City College and at the Juilliard School.
He and his second wife, photographer Samantha Wilson, are building a house in Telluride, Colo. Williams lives in Weston when he is working in Boston.
“When I was working in Hollywood, I saw how successful Andre Previn was — and with seemingly little effort. I felt I had to work harder because I was less gifted.
“I had to work harder to do the same work. I had to be prepared to spend more hours. It’s still that way. I’m a natural musician but not that natural. Maybe it appears to be obsessive. Maybe it’s a kind of compensation for being a less quick study than a colleague.
“To me, music encourages its own intense concentration. Music is very intoxicating, very seductive. It can hold your attention longer than reading.
“When I’m working, I don’t think of myself. I think only of the music. I don’t set out to lose myself, but I do. I abandon myself to the music. If you concentrate completely on subject X, your own adrenaline anesthetizes you from subject Y.
“The pursuit of excellence is what life ought to be about. It’s trying to get closer to God, to imitate the perfect state. The odyssey to find perfection should define humanity.
“This thought comes into my consciousness when I’m working. If I forge my music better, if I shape it better, if I make it better, I am happier than if I hadn’t tried.
“To me it’s like this: If you bust your gut and you lose, you feel badly. But if you don’t bust your gut and you lose, you feel much worse.
“I wasn’t critical of the orchestra’s manners when I left the Pops in l984. Our differences had to do with attitude. I thought we needed an atmosphere that was more friendly, more efficient.
“There were aspects that needed changing. I left because I thought leaving was necessary.
“Things changed. But a lot of things have stayed the same. The difference now is that I’m more comfortable.
“There’s so much to learn on a job. You can be diminished by your predecessor. I had to face that possibility because my predecessor Arthur Fiedler was highly visible. I wasn’t scared. I was uncomfortable.
“When I tell you I’m more comfortable now, I mean more comfortable about being able to deal with the problems. You do better because you know more. Being ‘comfortable’ has its complications. Complacency has to be guarded against. We need to be animated by something, even discomfort.
“What I do with the orchestra is try to make the goal we’re seeking worth the maximum effort. I’m dealing with professionals who know the importance of a moment, who know when to say to themselves: ‘Now it counts!’
“I don’t use tricks to inspire my orchestra. I don’t even know if I can inspire. If there are tense musical disputes, I think they can be remedied with technical solutions. I offer the solutions. Maybe if I’m right enough times, that inspires respect.
“Discipline is essential to creativity. Rarely is anything right the first time. Maybe, maybe you get it on the fifth try. Discipline involves tenacity and steadfastness. It has to be applied vigorously every day.
“Music is athletic. You have to train every day in order to perform. If you get lazy, you get weak. Musicians are like joggers. If you jog every day, you get to a higher level. Success is the result of sustained effort.
“Music is a basic human need. We communicate verbally. We communicate with body language. But there comes a time when a shepherd picks up a flute or a hunter picks up a drum and plays out his joy or his pain. Music is an essential nutrient. Without it, we are incomplete.
“When I was composing for films in Hollywood, I saw other people conducting my music. I thought: ‘But I know better how my music should be performed.’
“So I got up on the podium and told the musicians exactly what I wanted — and when they did it, I was satisfied. That’s how I got the first inkling that I could be a conductor.
“I’m never frustrated by music. What can be frustrating is not being able to solve problems in a given piece. You have to address yourself to your own inadequacies.
“The joy of music doesn’t come often to me. Most things are flawed. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. The ideal always seems to elude me. I always want to do better.
“After all, I’m defined by my work, by the details of the process of making music. My work is what I am.”