A Close Encounter with John Williams

September 15, 2008, 10:43 AM · The nine-year-old "Star Wars" fan in me just had a big thrill: playing a concert of John Williams film scores Saturday night, with John Williams himself conducting. Williams conducted the event at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, Calif., as a benefit for the Pasadena Symphony and Pops Orchestras.

John Williams

The rather older violinist in me also had the thrill that comes from playing a concert after one rehearsal, which let out 45 minutes early. (Mr. Williams said, "Oh you guys sound great; you know this stuff," after rehearsing er, well, most of the pieces we would play.)

Actually, Williams was right, most of us had played many of the pieces, which included excerpts from "Star Wars," the Olympic Fanfare, "Close Encounters," "Harry Potter," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Indiana Jones," "Schindler's List," and "E.T."

And even those I had never played – yes, I knew them. Like you know your mother's face. Of course, any film score feels familiar by the end of the movie, but most of Williams' scores have followed me well out of the movie theater and taken residence in my own life, illustrating its various dramas and also periods of time. For example, "Summertime 1982 in Cleveland with my grandparents" emerges in striking detail from my memory when I hear Williams' music from "E.T.." This is obviously not its intended backdrop; actually I found the movie itself to be almost unbearably corny! But what comes to mind for you what you hear, say, "Princess Leia's theme"? The Bun Queen, or something else? Yeah, I thought so.

Back to John Williams. He was right; he didn't need to over-rehearse.

It wasn't because the music is easy; it has some challenges, particularly at Williams' brisk tempos. There is some serious noodling required: a little double-speed Kreutzer-like action in the Olympic theme, and some sextuplets in "Close Encounters" that begin to require vaguely R. Strauss-ian types of exertions. And when Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig, takes off, the owl takes off, motored by 32nd notes, in 3/8, counted in one. We had the music in advance, so at least anything unfamiliar could get a little wood-shedding before the rehearsal.

But even if everyone in the orchestra is prepared, professional and ready, one individual can make or break it: the conductor. What made this show run smoothly was John Williams -- he's a good conductor! I'd only ever thought of him as a composer, despite the fact that he was Music Director for the Boston Pops for 14 seasons. He has something that many conductors don't seem to realize they need: the ability to communicate, not so much with the audience, but with the musicians. As far as stick technique, all that normal conductor stuff, it just seems irrelevant. I get the feeling he knows what he wants and he'll do what's needed to get it, no more and no less.

Maybe his spare and utilitarian conducting technique comes from directing musicians in a studio, as opposed to conducting in front of an audience. Sometimes he stopped conducting altogether and watched us play. He would lean over the desk, listening and intent, looking straight at the musician or section of relevance, offering the occasional gesture, only when needed. He communicated a descrescendo with just a look. A little finger wiggle showed the harpist precisely how to place each pluck in an unrehearsed ritardando during the concert. He ended a piece simply by lowering his outstretched hand, as though he were placing a lid on it.

Not only that, but his sense of timing and placement was so good and right, it was almost uncanny. It went beyond a composer knowing the "right" way to play his own work. You'd think any conductor could ape the tempos in a film score that everyone's heard a million times, but they never can. The "Star Wars" Main Title all but falls apart between mm. 68-82 in the hands of two out of three conductors, but of course not with Williams. But that's not even the entire point. He seems to hold the drama, placement, movement, gesture right in his hands, and it fits together organically. No need to impose anything, it just goes that way, it's just so right. Even if it's a little different every time.

Before going on stage, we musicians were talking about some of the quirks of this music. Funny little runs, all in one measure, with 11 to a beat, then 6 to a beat then 7 to a beat. And crazy shifts, intervals that just don't lay well.

"There are arrangements of these pieces," said a friend, another violinist. "and in the arrangements, the runs are evened out, and everything is made easier. It can be so much easier." He paused. "But it isn't the same, is it? If you listen, it's so much richer, so much better WITH all that stuff."

Yes, and FUN. An exhilarating challenge. And not just for the violins. For example, the woodwinds in "Nimbus 2000," what a thrill to see them do that live!

And then comes the best violin part in all Williams' work: "Schindler's List," which our concertmaster, Aimee Kreston, played beautifully.

Williams told the audience that upon seeing it for the first time, "Schindler's List" moved Williams so much that he didn't feel up to writing the film score. "I told Steven Spielberg, 'You have to find a better composer than me for this film. Steven said, 'John, I know.'

'But all of those composers are dead!'"

That's not just humility, it's wisdom from a composer who, without a doubt, stands on the shoulders of those composers.

I can remember a friend sneering that everything from Star Wars is "ripped off" from somewhere else, that it's all "derivative." I'll argue that ALL music is derivative, that none of us is the Maker of this music. As Rachel Barton Pine illustrated for us last week, not even Beethoven composed everything straight from his head; his compositions were a product of his environment. Even with music as novel as Schoenberg's: the man took a scrambled world and made scrambled music. You have to embrace your musical inheritance first (and he did) in order to push that hard against it.

What good are the great composers to us, dead? We have to bring music to life, whatever its source. The question is what do we make of this tremendous body of work called classical music? Do we lock it in a vault? Or do we make it relevant, build on it, and incorporate it into our world? That ability to commandeer the best of music, to make it his, and then to place it precisely in everyone's path at precisely the right moment, that is John Williams' brilliance.


September 15, 2008 at 05:48 PM · Very few conductors can communicate like that. What a gift.

September 15, 2008 at 08:09 PM · Whoa Maestro Niles... nine year old Star Wars Fan? Your in my age range! I'm glad time is more merciful too you than it has been for me! ;^)

September 15, 2008 at 08:10 PM · Whoops! I should have typed, "You're" not Your.

September 15, 2008 at 10:24 PM · Sounds like an interesting experience. One message in this for you kids, you youngsters, is to live where stuff be happenin'. There are lots of orchestras the size of Pasadena, only in locales where stuff ain't happenin'. That ain't where you want to be.

September 15, 2008 at 11:13 PM · Your description of Williams's conducting style reminds me a bit of Leon Fleisher's conducting style. The latter made so few and such small bodily movements, but he obviously had great rapport with his orchestra, and the music they made together sounded wonderful.

September 19, 2008 at 02:59 PM · Enjoyed reading this, Laurie! I've always been a big John Williams fan. Hearing Star Wars as a kid (and/or seeing the movie in the theatres) was a grand paradigm shift in my life. Took me years to realize it was the music, not the movie, that so stirred my soul. I'm very much a soundtrack kinda gal. (Love John Barry's music, as well.)

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