‘John Williams’ Final Bow’ (1993)


By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page 65, December 20th, 1993
John Williams could probably compose nobly valedictory music on a moment’s notice, but he is notably reluctant to embark on a valedictory conversation.
Journalists have been wearing Williams down by asking him how he “feels” at this moment of closure. With tonight’s Christmas Pops concert, the last of more than 600, Williams brings his remarkable 14-year term as conductor of the Boston Pops to an end.
“Everybody’s been asking me how I feel,” Williams says, sighing, “and I don’t know how to answer that question because I don’t know how I feel yet. There is so much work to do right now that I can’t think of anything as ending. I don’t feel separated, and I have never felt happier than I do at the moment. I do know that what I am going to miss is the people, my friends in the orchestra, in the management, in the city — and the people I have worked with here have always been closer to my heart than actually doing the job; the people have become a part of my life, and they are going to stay part of my life.”
Speaking in a long retrospective conversation in the conductor’s green room after a rehearsal last week, Williams looked remarkably fit. During the Pops season last spring and summer, Williams was suffering from severe lower back trouble; one of his responses has been to lose weight and tone himself up — every morning and evening he does sit-ups. The results show and he’s proud of them.
Although he is a modest man, he is also justifiably proud of some of his accomplishments at the Pops, and quite open about listing some of the things he wishes he’d been able to do better. “I wish I had been able to do more to invigorate the concerts on the Esplanade a little better than I did.” He was also eager to give credit where credit is due — his personal decency shines through everything he says, which is one reason why everybody likes him.
“I go out there every night and there’s lots of applause, but there are a lot of people who share in the process who never get thanked,” Williams said. ”Specifically, I’m thinking about the management team at the Boston Symphony, about William Cosell and Susan Dangel at WBGH, who have been the source of many wonderful ideas for guests and repertoire, and in fact about everyone in Symphony Hall, the people who sell the tickets, make the sandwiches and sweep up the floors afterwards. I didn’t do this job alone, and I need to share some of the applause with people like these.”
As he looked back over his 14 years, Williams said, “There’s nothing I wanted to do that I didn’t do, but the degree to which I was able to do it is another question.”
Williams is frankly troubled about the cost of running operations like the BSO and Pops, where the budget approaches $40 million annually; he wonders whether such costs can be justified in a society with urgent emergencies in so many areas; he sometimes wonders about the relevance of his work. But he is also convinced that a place remains for the Pops. “It is in a position to reach out, and to a large number of people, because it is closer to the entertainment world than the symphony orchestra is. I believe that the Pops has the greatest opportunity of any part of the BSO organization to reach out to the widest and most diverse community, and we tried to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Williams didn’t mention that the first woman guest conductor of the Pops appeared during his tenure (Marin Alsop), and the first African-American (Isaiah Jackson). But he did speak with particular pleasure about his effort “to interest the composing community in the unique opportunities the Pops has to offer. We had new pieces by John Corigliano, William Bolcom, William Kraft, Joseph Schwantner; the most conspicuous success was Peter Maxwell Davies’ ‘An Orkney Wedding: With Sunrise,’ which is a masterpiece, and I said at the beginning, we will have done a fairly good job if we have produced one masterpiece in every decade.”
One major source of frustration for Williams has been the intractability of the Pops rehearsal schedule; he wasn’t able to do much about it. “The schedule just isn’t set up so that you can give things the attention they deserve; the pressure is always there to work quickly and economically. Ideally, what we should be able to do is rehearse a program longer and repeat it more often, but we haven’t been able to do that because the exigencies of preparing for the television programs have driven the schedule.”
Williams honors his past — bound scores for all his films line the shelves of his living room in Beverly Hills. But he doesn’t live in the past and he doesn’t spend much time listening to the records he has made with the Pops. ”I listen very carefully during the recording and editing and test- pressing stages, but once the records are out on the market, I don’t need to hear them again; in an almost journalistic sense they are behind me.”
But the conductor is sure that a chronological survey of the records would prove one thing. “The records were good even in the beginning, but they are better now. The Pops is in great shape, and it is getting better all the time. As far as recording goes, we have learned how to use the hall better, how to position the orchestra to get the most effective sound out of the brass and percussion.”
After tonight, Williams’ immediate plan is to return to California for the holidays, which he says he will spend with the “whole brood” of his family. ”For the first part of next year, I have kept the decks cleared — something I have longed to do for the last 30 years. Once I have rested up a little, I am going to get to work on creating a concerto for my friend Yo-Yo Ma, and that is a very intimidating prospect for any composer.”
Williams has already finished a commission for the New York Philharmonic, a bassoon concerto for its principal bassoonist, Judith LeClair.
Williams’ next film project will again be with his collaborator of 20 years, Steven Spielberg; Williams will write the score for “The Bridges of Madison County,” and he hopes to write it next summer at Tanglewood.
The good news is that John Williams is not leaving the BSO family; he has offered to make himself useful in any way that he can to the Pops and, most particularly, to the BSO’s summer music school, the Tanglewood Music Center. He has already rented a house for next summer in Stockbridge — the same house where he composed the score to “Schindler’s List” last summer.
“My wife Samantha has built houses for us in Santa Fe and Telluride. She loves them and I enjoy them, but I think my soul lives in the Berkshires. I have lived in California most of my life, but my father was from Bangor, Maine, and my mother was from Boston, and that must be coming out again. I loved watching my granddaughter rolling down the lawn on Prospect Hill in Stockbridge last summer. And I was delighted to learn that I could work there — I have chained myself to Hollywood all these years, and it turns out I didn’t need to! Steven Spielberg sent up the equipment I needed, the movieolas and things like that, and he flew up to the Pittsfield airport from his home on Long Island for meetings. Telephones and fax machines have changed the world, and it was wonderful to look out on a Berkshire morning instead of having to confront a freeway in Los Angeles; writing the music felt so relaxed and easy. So I hope I get to do it all over again next summer. And when there is any free time, I intend to walk.”
Williams discounts any suggestion that he should use some of his new free time to write an autobiography like his friend Andre Previn. “I’ve never felt that I’ve done anything that warranted writing an autobiography. Still, funny things do happen now and then that make me remember how many things I’ve been able to do. The other night, Samantha and I were watching Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in ‘Funny Face’ on television and suddenly I heard something familiar — I remembered scoring that scene, and that was 35 years ago! And the weight of it all suddenly strikes me.”
Williams has taken an active interest in the search for his successor at the Pops, although he’s as much in the dark as the rest of us about what decision the management will reach. He doesn’t worry about the problems anyone else might have in following John Williams in a big job because he never let
himself worry about succeeding Arthur Fiedler. “That was a daunting prospect, but what I soon came to realize is that the Pops is an institution larger than Arthur Fiedler, John Williams or anyone else; individuals are only temporary visitors. A new person will come in and help the institution to continue, and I am more than sanguine that it will. The Pops was a wonderful and special opportunity for me. I hope I’ve made the most of it.”