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JoeinAR

How good is John Williams as a conductor?

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I don't know or understand the actions or functions of a conductor. I know the general function I should say, but all I see is baton work and John does point and gesture with his left hand. He smiles alot seems to mouth alot and his eyes move constantly. He's very enjoyable to watch in my opinion.

I know most of John's music is directed by him unlike say Jerry who didn't always conduct his music.

So how good is John as a conductor, and not just his own music?

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I've read on Jerry Goldsmith Online that Jerry was so disappointed in his conducting abilities that he was taking classes to improve them. That was probably around 1986-87.

But watching John conduct, he certainly has, shall we say, the "showmanship".

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Williams is thought I think as a fairly good conductor and he certainly has surprising showmanship for a man of such reserved and quiet nature. I think it is his chance to be extrovert. :)

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I watched John conduct the Olympic Fanfare last night. Both at the actual 84 Olympics and the Boston Pops, he does have flair. It appears to take some physical skill, strength, and stamina.

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He is very clear to watch...very functional with little "elaboration" of the basic techniques (that is a POSITIVE, by the way - there's way too much flowery bullshit from people overdoing their own style). He is highly confident with the stick. He is very co-ordinated - and never has his head buried in the score - always knows the music he is conducting inside-out, whether it be his own or something else. Excellent body language - there is no doubt as to who is the star on stage when he is conducting - I don't think that's intentional by any stretch, that's just the way he is. Final point - with most conductors I get a feeling that there is usually some compromise with tempi/moods etc...I don't get that from him at all - I think he is really quite demanding and controlling (which is a good thing). A serious conductor - not someone who just conducts.

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The main function of the conductor is to create the interpretation of a musical text for performance. To accomplish that, he must express to the orchestra his musical ideas, from articulations and phrasings, balance between the instrument groups, and even the "feel" and directionality of the music. That can be expressed by verbal instructions, and also by the baton, which makes considerable difference in a performance of a work.

That stated, what we can see on stage is not even a tiny piece of the work a conductor do. (A great example of this is Daniel Barenboim's static conducting of Ravel's Bolero. His main work on the piece is not in guiding the orchestra as a sort of "metronome", but providing the musicians with the musical ideas to interpret the music.)

From what you can listen in the recordings, John Williams is usually very keen on taking care of the technical aspects of a succesful performance, stating clear phrasings, wonderful orchestral balance (the recording engineer also deserves credits for this) and crystal clear exposition of motifs, coloristic efects and instrumental timbre. It's hard for me to imagine other kind of musical choices for his works.

Sometimes, in his live concerts, one can tell some orchestral devices weren't so well handled, possibly due to a short time of rehearsals, or maybe because of doubtful recording decisions. I've never seen Williams conducting live, and the only approach I can make of his concerts is based on videos from TV boradcasts, which rarely have the proper audio quality. There are live performances where Williams conducts a work with very different musical choices, compared to the soundtrack album. "Adventures on Earth" form E.T. comes instantly to my mind.

I consider John Williams a good conductor, specially when dealing with his own works, and I've never listen to a performance of his music better interpreted by other conductor.

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From a visually stylistic point of view, I'm not a huge fan, but that doesn't really matter. I think in this case, the only thing that matters is the end result: hundreds of hours of music that is well-performed and that fits the timing and emotion of the films perfectly. He clearly gets the job done.

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Watching some of their live performances, I've noticed that John and Jerry have had similar mannerisms when conducting, one particular example is the big finish when they raise their batons up their head and cross it over the other side. I'm not a good critic of conducting styles but I'm very observant at the conductor's mannerisms and styles.

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I'm always wary of approaching this subject with JW fans, but honestly, he isn't that fantastic at the "stick technique" of conducting. It's not exactly hindered his career or anything, but be sure here to distinguish between "stick technique" and "rehearsal technique," which are two entirely different things (although they do intersect).

Rehearsal technique is the art of rehearsing a group: getting them to fix problems, make musical changes to things like articulations & phrasing, getting the group to balance (i.e. bring the melody out here, or the background lower, etc), and a million other things. You can see in videos that JW is extremely talented at hearing errors, making changes, etc. It's a mixed bag when conducting music you wrote: you have to not only listen to the music and judge your own creation, you also have to listen for errors and things that just need "fixing."

Stick technique is just that - the physical technique with the baton and (equally important) facial expression. This is where JW really isn't exactly at the top of the game. I have to be clear that I don't mean this as hateful criticism, but he's pretty well known as an example of what not to do. There are many conducting gestures that he routinely ignores: smaller gestures and overall conducting pattern for softer music (keeping it "in the box"), gestures to help the group rhythmically (the often-overlooked "gesture of syncopation"), and breathing with the group. Overall, what he doesn't use is more related to finesse. He has one big pattern, one small pattern, and of course the big finish.

A few friends in the Boston Pops and Symphony have told me the most frustrating thing playing with JW on the box is that they will perform something with him on one program, then a year later he's back and they'll do the same tune(s). Only problem is that since last year, he's changed his mind about how he wants something played (not tempo - something more detailed like phrasing or something), and they're playing it like they did last year. So he has to stop and tell them every little detail instead of just conducting it that way, which they would completely just follow. That's about the only time that I can see any real drawback in that manner.

At the same time, as Greg just posted, he is extraordinarily clear. This most likely comes from years and years of conducting in recording sessions to a pre-determined click track for tempo, and just needing to be really damned clear because in the recording session, nobody cares about your artsy-fartsy conducting degree. ;) So, even though I may have sounded "critical" (because the OP asked), I don't really judge JW when it comes to that. Nobody expects him to be Sir Georg Solti or Fred Fennell, just the composer conducting his own tunes, and he does a pretty fantastic job of it.

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I very much would like to see a response from Maurizio or Miguel. I have it in my head that they would provide fair criticism.

Thanks for your nice words, Joey.

The subject matter is interesting. It depends however if we want to analyze his conducting skills in terms of live concert performance or in terms of pure musical expression/interpretation, which can be pretty much two different things.

First, it must be said that Williams has not been formally trained as a concert conductor. He likely took classes and courses as part of his broad musical formation, but he never set out to be a classical conductor. He spent most of his youngster life conducting orchestras and ensembles in studio, be it film recordings or album recordings. This is quite a different task than conducting for live performances. Wiliams himself told that when he accepted to be Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops he had to rethink much of his conducting abilities because that was very different to what he was accustomed to.

As a studio conductor, I think Williams is surely one of the best around. He knows how to get a clean, precise and warm performance in a relatively short amount of time. He knows how to talk with musicians and he's quick to change things that doesn't work at the first reading. When conducting for a film score recording of course you must take into account all the problematics in terms of synchronization and timings. While there are tech tools like punches/streamers and click-tracks that help a lot in that department, these can also make the performance too cold or unnatural. I think Williams showed always a great deal of expertise to get a very musical, natural performances even in very complex cues that requires a lot of sync points and hits.

As a live concert conductor, my opinion is that Williams surely grew a lot and learned how to be a very good-natured and sympathetic one. His 13-years tenure at the Pops surely helped him a lot in that sense. It seems orchestras like a lot to work with him. He's not a leading interpreter of classical works, but I guess he never thought of himself in that role. He conducted a great deal of classical repertoire, but in the end he got a reputation mainly as conductor of his own music. My opinion is that he shows a great command of the orchestra, he seems to always find a good feeling with the players. Maybe sometimes he tends a bit too much for an elegant, rounded sound, but he always delivers a very satisfying performance overall.

EDIT: I see airmanjerm and others already explained much better than me! :)

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I would call him competent and functional, with a bit of showmanship for his audiences, but not in an over the top way.

He is a very clear conductor that gets his point across, but I think there is no masking the fact that his conducting style is primarily that of one who needs to be functional by nature of his career, and not the style of a true concert performance conductor - which I find to be a good thing, as some conductors are too performance-oriented and can be hard to follow without intimately knowing their style.

I call him a good conductor because he does the job he needs to and does it well, but I would never compare him to a traditional conductor like you would find in Dudamel, Reiner, Bernstein, or Solti.

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You can see in videos that JW is extremely talented at hearing errors, making changes, etc. It's a mixed bag when conducting music you wrote: you have to not only listen to the music and judge your own creation, you also have to listen for errors and things that just need "fixing."

That's one of the most interesting aspects in JW's conducting, imho. Considering he said several times he doesn't like to revisit older works mainly because it's likely he would find something he wish he had done differently, I wonder how he feels in this sense when he looks at his own scores (especially the older ones) when preparing a concert. He clearly likes to adjust things and sometimes he even rethinks deeply a composition for concert performances. But I wonder if the tendency to "fix" something that maybe doesn't sound "right" anymore to his ear is something that he must deal with regularly.

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You can see in videos that JW is extremely talented at hearing errors, making changes, etc. It's a mixed bag when conducting music you wrote: you have to not only listen to the music and judge your own creation, you also have to listen for errors and things that just need "fixing."

That's one of the most interesting aspects in JW's conducting, imho. Considering he said several times he doesn't like to revisit older works mainly because it's likely he would find something he wish he had done differently, I wonder how he feels in this sense when he looks at his own scores (especially the older ones) when preparing a concert. He clearly likes to adjust things and sometimes he even rethinks deeply a composition for concert performances. But I wonder if the tendency to "fix" something that maybe doesn't sound "right" anymore to his ear is something that he must deal with regularly.

Well I was thinking more about interpretation of what's already on the page, but it's highly possible. I know that for me, I have a hard time when our conductor wants to pull out something I wrote 10 years ago - I always want to go back and make a million changes to make it better, because I would do so many things differently now than I would have then, and like to think that I'm better at writing now than I was then.

Still, I can't imagine having that many tunes and going back to something like "Superman" and thinking you could have done it "better." Crazy, huh?

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I'm always wary of approaching this subject with JW fans, but honestly, he isn't that fantastic at the "stick technique" of conducting. It's not exactly hindered his career or anything, but be sure here to distinguish between "stick technique" and "rehearsal technique," which are two entirely different things (although they do intersect).

Rehearsal technique is the art of rehearsing a group: getting them to fix problems, make musical changes to things like articulations & phrasing, getting the group to balance (i.e. bring the melody out here, or the background lower, etc), and a million other things. You can see in videos that JW is extremely talented at hearing errors, making changes, etc. It's a mixed bag when conducting music you wrote: you have to not only listen to the music and judge your own creation, you also have to listen for errors and things that just need "fixing."

Stick technique is just that - the physical technique with the baton and (equally important) facial expression. This is where JW really isn't exactly at the top of the game. I have to be clear that I don't mean this as hateful criticism, but he's pretty well known as an example of what not to do. There are many conducting gestures that he routinely ignores: smaller gestures and overall conducting pattern for softer music (keeping it "in the box"), gestures to help the group rhythmically (the often-overlooked "gesture of syncopation"), and breathing with the group. Overall, what he doesn't use is more related to finesse. He has one big pattern, one small pattern, and of course the big finish.

A few friends in the Boston Pops and Symphony have told me the most frustrating thing playing with JW on the box is that they will perform something with him on one program, then a year later he's back and they'll do the same tune(s). Only problem is that since last year, he's changed his mind about how he wants something played (not tempo - something more detailed like phrasing or something), and they're playing it like they did last year. So he has to stop and tell them every little detail instead of just conducting it that way, which they would completely just follow. That's about the only time that I can see any real drawback in that manner.

At the same time, as Greg just posted, he is extraordinarily clear. This most likely comes from years and years of conducting in recording sessions to a pre-determined click track for tempo, and just needing to be really damned clear because in the recording session, nobody cares about your artsy-fartsy conducting degree. ;) So, even though I may have sounded "critical" (because the OP asked), I don't really judge JW when it comes to that. Nobody expects him to be Sir Georg Solti or Fred Fennell, just the composer conducting his own tunes, and he does a pretty fantastic job of it.

So basically, he's crap!

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I would call him competent and functional, with a bit of showmanship for his audiences, but not in an over the top way.

He is a very clear conductor that gets his point across, but I think there is no masking the fact that his conducting style is primarily that of one who needs to be functional by nature of his career, and not the style of a true concert performance conductor - which I find to be a good thing, as some conductors are too performance-oriented and can be hard to follow without intimately knowing their style.

I call him a good conductor because he does the job he needs to and does it well, but I would never compare him to a traditional conductor like you would find in Dudamel, Reiner, Bernstein, or Solti.

I have no idea who these people are!

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So basically, he's crap!

From a certain point of view...

(But not a point of view I care to take. No need to judge one artist by the criteria of another.)

I would call him competent and functional, with a bit of showmanship for his audiences, but not in an over the top way.

He is a very clear conductor that gets his point across, but I think there is no masking the fact that his conducting style is primarily that of one who needs to be functional by nature of his career, and not the style of a true concert performance conductor - which I find to be a good thing, as some conductors are too performance-oriented and can be hard to follow without intimately knowing their style.

I call him a good conductor because he does the job he needs to and does it well, but I would never compare him to a traditional conductor like you would find in Dudamel, Reiner, Bernstein, or Solti.

I have no idea who these people are!

No worries Joey....they are really well-known orchestral conductors if you're into non-film-score classical music. You can probably find plenty clips of their conducting on YouTube if you have any interest in that sort of thing.

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I have very little interest in classical music. It's comparison to film music doesn't work for me.

Well sure, I don't mean to compare the styles of music. Your original question was about how good JW is as a conductor, and those folks Joe mentioned are at the top of the game when it comes to being a conductor. I'm not really sure who out there in Film Score Composer world is at the top of the conducting game that I could use as a comparison outside of classical music...at least, not at the top of the game like those Solti, Dudamel, etc. folks are.

You don't have to like classical music at all if you don't want to, but conducting is conducting, whether it's film score, a Mahler symphony, or an easy piece for a beginning band. So, if you want to see some really fantastic conducting just go check out those guys and you'll see what I mean.

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Well, he's no Herbert von Karajan, but he's quite decent, I think. More experienced than most film composers too, what with his Boston Pops stint. Then again, I'm like others here -- I'm quite clueless about what makes good or bad conducting. The only thing I've noticed is that Williams is rather laidback compared to some more "aggressive" conductors.

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When I attended his concert in New York in October, I was seated in the front row and I was very impressed with his conducting ability. One highlight was a very fast and complex cue from Fiddler on the Roof. He spent about two minutes looking at the soloist without refering to his conductor's score once. This would have been impressive anyway, but for this very complex piece I was very impressed.

By the way, I often saw him looking towards the violin section and jabbing downward with his baton. Does anyone know what this gesture means?

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I want to thank all the great opinions and facts presented here by some really knowledgable people.

and chuckster I've seen Fantasia, it's an insufferable film IMHO.

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Here are videos of some great conductors:

There was a video from Bernstein where he virtually stopped conducting just to enjoy the music, as the tempo was the same and the players could carry on without him. Anybody remember what piece was that? It was amazing.

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In my time being a conductor myself, I've discovered that there are two types of conductors: the ones with great stick techinque and the ones with great rehearsal technique. JW is by far the later - and if you consider what he does with film scores, he has to be. Baton techinque and everything is good - I can follow him, I know what he's going to do. But, it's not great - he's no Leonard Bernstein or James Levine or George Solti. I have, in my career, copy things from JW, but only what I considered to be his strong suits.

Also, too, understand that those orchestras are so good, and so talented, the conductor is nearly useless. Nearly... ;-)

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Bernstein is my absolute favourite as far as conductors go, that man is a true legend. And while Williams might not be as good as the greats like Karajan, Levine and Reiner, I still think he's great for many of the reasons already listed on this thread. He's enjoyable to watch in a concert setting, but he's far more interesting in a studio setting. I've always been fascinated by how he meticulously addresses the details of the music to the orchestra in the videos of recording sessions.

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My personal favourite will always be Leopold Stokowski, a true maverick. He broke most of the rules, not only in his extremely expressive baton (or rather hand) technique, but in how he reconfigured the symphony orchestra depending on the concert hall and the kind of sound he wanted to achieve. He recognised that the standard orchestra seating was out of date, and didn't take advantage of the improvements to instruments and modern technology. He also encouraged free bowing in the strings, free breathing for the winds, and sometimes had resonators beyond the orchestra, reflecting the sound back to the audience.

Beyond the sheer technical side, Stokowski carried with him an almost mystical aura, that even managed get incredible performances out of mediocre orchestras that he'd never conducted before. Many likened him to a sorcerer, but more likely it was simply had great intuitive talent for communicating his ideas to the players, and using his hands and eyes to set the mood.

There's been no one quite like him, before or since.

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I've heard mixed things. But one interesting thing that I've heard from someone, who used to be somewhat fairly connected in the industry, is that JW is a fantastic conductor up until the point when he starts to just wave the baton in large circles. I can't remember what he called it, the "Williams Wheel" or something. I do like the fact that he gets so involved in the music that at some points, all he can do is that. To me, it just shows passion.

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My personal favourite will always be Leopold Stokowski, a true maverick. He broke most of the rules, not only in his extremely expressive baton (or rather hand) technique, but in how he reconfigured the symphony orchestra depending on the concert hall and the kind of sound he wanted to achieve. He recognised that the standard orchestra seating was out of date, and didn't take advantage of the improvements to instruments and modern technology. He also encouraged free bowing in the strings, free breathing for the winds, and sometimes had resonators beyond the orchestra, reflecting the sound back to the audience.

Isn't Stokowski blame for the now usual seating with non-stereophonic string sections? I still can't see the reasoning behind it, especially considering that some classical/romantic works seem to be written with precisely that stereo effect in mind.

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Ah - glad someone posted a passage of Leonard Bernstein conducting....one of the few conductors I've seen who could be absolutely authoritative whilst either standing completely still, or conducting down by his waste where hardly anyone could see his baton...THAT takes some doing...

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Ah - glad someone posted a passage of Leonard Bernstein conducting....one of the few conductors I've seen who could be absolutely authoritative whilst either standing completely still, or conducting down by his waste where hardly anyone could see his baton...THAT takes some doing...

Hehe.

I will always love him for this :

And the man was a fantastic lecturer too.

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Without reading all the replies

He's probably mediocre with other composer's works and classical music

But he's the ONLY one who can conduct his own music properly. I think his music has some unwritten detail and instrument balance he has to add live by conducting it himself.

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Enough with the nonsensical speculation - let's look at the facts:

Maybe now people will shut up and stop doubting the maestro's skills.

When Williams is in his prime, he is outmatched and none will leave unblown away...

This video is clear proof of that!

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Williams is definitely the best at conducting his own works. He has said he that "conducts out of self defense," or fear that others will misinterpret his compositions. As for conducting other people's works, from the recordings I've heard he's good. His interpretations aren't anything to write home about, but there's nothing wrong with them either, IMO.

From the standpoint of the musicians, his pattern looks to me like it'd be a bit difficult to follow, but with most conductors you can catch on pretty quickly. And in any case, the musicians actually performing the music never seem to have a problem with it.

When it comes to articulations, dynamics, etc., I think it's difficult to credit any of this to the conductor. They very well may work with the orchestra to achieve the right effect, visually or explicitly, but the sheet music itself should give the musicians a lot of information to work with. If it's a commonly played piece of music, the conductor may not have to say as much. If it's something brand new, like a film score, the conductor will probably have to guide the orchestra a little more to make sure their interpretation is accurate.

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I've read somewhere that he is considered a most excellent conductor (and that comes from conductors of classical music)!

When judging conductors, the imporant thing is not how they wave their baton or how they move around on the podium, but how well they can control the orchestra and coax the best performance out of the players. And as far as that goes, JW is one of the very best!

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As far as film music conductor go, Alfred Newman was pretty much the undisputed king, am I wrong? I've even heard it said he was a better conductor than composer

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