The man who loved conductingJohn Williams makes long-delayed Aspen debut
When the name John Williams comes up, it’s almost impossible not to make the immediate association with Steven Spielberg. After all, Williams has composed the music for all but one of Spielberg’s films, beginning with 1974’s “Sugarland Express,” continuing through the current “The Terminal,” and on into two future projects: the next installment of the “Indiana Jones” series and a remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Three of Williams’ five Academy Awards were for Spielberg-directed films: “Jaws,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List.” (The only Spielberg film not to feature a Williams score was “The Color Purple.” The film was produced by Quincy Jones, and Jones hired Spielberg to direct on condition that Jones would do the music.)But when Williams makes his first-ever appearance in Aspen this week, it will be to extend a collaboration that is a world apart from his work with Spielberg. Conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra concert on Sunday, July 18, Williams will work once again with violinist Gil Shaham, the concert’s soloist. Featured on the program are “TreeSong,” a 2000 piece which Williams wrote for Shaham, and Williams’ Violin Concerto, which Shaham recorded, along with “TreeSong” and three pieces from the “Schindler’s List” score, on a 2001 CD.The relationship with Shaham extends back a decade, when Shaham and Williams met at Tanglewood, the Massachusetts music festival where Williams has been composer-in-residence and regular conductor for 25 years. For several years, Williams and Shaham would regularly reconnect at Tanglewood, where “it seems we went through almost every great piece of violin repertoire,” said Williams. The two became close enough to bring their relationship outside the concert hall; they have appeared together at a number of fund-raising events, with Williams playing piano alongside Shaham.Williams will always be known best for his film scores. He has scored some 100 films, among them not only some of the most popular movies ever – “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – but also some of the most successful and memorable music to appear in film – “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” His staggering 41 Oscar nominations is more than any person has ever received.But the work with Shaham reflects the breadth of the 72-year-old Williams’ music career. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Williams has played piano in orchestras and jazz bands, conducted pops and classical music orchestras, composed film and TV scores, jazz music, and highly regarded concert work.••••
Williams was born on New York’s Long Island, into an enormously musical family. His father was a percussionist in New York radio orchestras; virtually all of his parents’ friends were musicians. “As a child, I just assumed when you grow up, you become a musician,” said the personable, humble Williams by phone. Williams learned to read music at the same time he learned to read words, and thanks to his parents’ circle, he had a very good music education. In addition to his classical training, Williams had a passion for jazz, favoring the big bands led by the likes of Stan Kenton.The family moved to Los Angeles when Williams was 16, and he studied composition while attending UCLA. Williams returned to New York to enter The Juilliard School, where his piano teacher was the esteemed Rosina Lhevinne. At 24, Williams went back to Los Angeles to audition for a job in the Columbia Pictures orchestra.”I needed a job. I needed to earn a living,” he said. “The music director heard me audition and asked me to join the orchestra on the spot. It was a 52-week contract, which was a great opportunity.”It was a great opportunity in other ways than the mere employment. The orchestra worked with the great score composers of the day, and Williams got training in playing, conducting and composing. “It was the greatest on-the-spot introduction,” he said. After three years, Williams was invited to score a TV program, and he eventually left the piano chair to pursue scoring.It was the right career move. After working in television, and warming up on such forgotten films as “Daddy-O,” “I Passed for White” and “Gidget Goes to Rome,” Williams worked his way up to fare like 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls” – a bomb, but which earned Williams his first Academy Award nomination – and 1971’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” which brought the composer his first Oscar statue. A busy year would find Williams scoring five or so films; in several years, he earned multiple Oscar nominations.Somehow, Williams managed to squeeze other projects into his working life. In between 1974 and 1976 – a period that saw the Williams-scored films “Earthquake,” “The Towering Inferno,” “Jaws,” “The Missouri Breaks” and more hit the big screen – Williams was also creating his violin concerto. The piece was inspired by and dedicated to his late wife Barbara, who had died in 1974.”She had loved the violin. Her father had been a violinist,” said Williams. “On her death, I promised her I’d write a violin concerto.”Williams, consistent with what seems to be his nature, came up with a celebratory work that was premiered by the St. Louis Symphony and conductor Leonard Slatkin. “It’s not elegiac,” he noted. “It’s a virtuosic piece I think she would have liked. It’s joyous, actually, in its mood. It doesn’t reflect anything funereal. It celebrates one woman’s life.”And when you have an artist of the level of Gil, it comes a celebration.”
Shaham is not the only noted artist to play Williams’ concert music. His cello concerto was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his flute and violin concertos were recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.It’s likely that none of Williams’ compositions has as interesting a backstory as his “TreeSong.” During his regular walk through the Boston Common, Williams became fond of a certain tree, a Chinese dawn redwood. On a trip through the Boston Public Gardens, Williams mentioned the tree to his walking companion, Harvard professor Dr. Shiu-Ying Wu. She pointed to a tree, much older than the one Williams had seen, but the same species nonetheless.”And she said she had planted all of them,” said Williams. “And that she had brought the first Chinese redwood to the U.S. in 1947, when she came to Harvard.”With Shaham’s playing in mind, Williams tried to capture his feelings about the Chinese dawn redwood. “It was the coincidence of Dr. Wu planting those trees – the grandest of the species in North America – and my loving this single tree in the Boston Common. I was touched by that coincidence.””TreeSong” fits in comfortably with the nature theme for this week’s Aspen Festival Orchestra concert. Williams will also conduct Vaughan Williams’ Overture from “The Wasps” and excerpts from Holst’s The Planets. Williams – who has a bassoon concerto to his credit, titled “The Five Sacred Trees,” and used the Robert Graves poem “Battle of the Trees” in his score for “The Phantom Menace” – doesn’t claim to be a naturalist in any formal way. The program, he says, was selected in a fairly arbitrary manner. Still, there is an attachment to the natural world that has been reflected in Williams’ work.”I think I’m just in a kind of way, like we all are, becoming an environmentalist and becoming aware of the fragility of our situation,” said Williams, who lives in Los Angeles’ Westwood section, near the UCLA campus. “We’re having our consciousness raised in a drastic way compared to even 25 years ago.”••••
The film-score work had given Williams extensive experience in front of an orchestra. But until 25 years ago, almost all of that podium time had been in a recording studio.In 1980, however, after the death of Arthur Fiedler, Williams was named conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. The position, which he held for 13 years, launched a prominent second career and a more balanced artistic existence.”It was a healthy contrast to the recluse kind of life a composer, of necessity, has to lead,” said Williams, who has also been artist-in-residence at Tanglewood for 25 years. “Composing in a room, having the music abstractly sitting on a page. That was a visible and demanding role, and I was happy to take the risk. It wasn’t a lark. I find it a wonderful antidote to the cloistered life.”If anyone once accused Williams of dabbling in conducting, his commitment can no longer be in doubt. Now the laureate conductor for the Boston Pops, he conducts some 20 concerts a year in Boston and Tanglewood. This summer, he will also conduct at the Hollywood Bowl for the 26th consecutive year. Last year, Williams conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of his horn concerto, and participated in the opening of Walt Disney Hall, conducting the premiere of his orchestral work, “Soundings.” Next year, Williams will conduct Shaham and the National Symphony Orchestra in a program that features “Soundings,” “TreeSong” and the violin concerto. This, he says, represents a downturn in his conducting schedule; age, the difficulties of traveling and the demands of composing have left him less time to conduct.The commitment to Tanglewood has had one negative disadvantage: Williams had to continually turn down invitations from the late Robert Harth, former president of the Aspen Music Festival and an associate of Williams from their days together at the Hollywood Bowl, to come to Aspen. Williams has never been to Aspen, making him both the last notable American conductor and the last Hollywood insider to touch Aspen soil. (Williams would quibble with the characterization of himself as a “Hollywood insider.” He says, though he lives in Los Angeles, he is not part of the Hollywood world, and proves it by asking, “Oh, do a lot of Hollywood people come to Aspen?”) Making his debut now is a bittersweet experience.”Robert would call me every year and say, ‘You’ve got to come to Aspen,'” said Williams. “It saddens me slightly that it’s the first year he’s not with us. It saddens me very much.”Along with his long delayed Aspen debut, Williams will add another notch of sorts to his belt this year. As part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood will stage a performance of the jazz version of “My Fair Lady” Williams composed in 1962 for drummer Shelly Mann. Williams calls it “a kind of closet jazz classic,” and he, for one, can’t wait for the performance. “It will be my first time hearing it in 42 years,” he said. “This is my slim and fading jazz history.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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