‘Williams Passes Test with Flying Colors’ (1980)

The Boston Globe, January 24th, 1980

It didn’t look like a Pop’s concert, not outside Carnegie Hall, where the cold drizzle was falling on the “Sold Out” sign, not indoors, where there were no tables, no decorations amid the white, crimson and gold interior, no bustling waitresses, no cheese tray, no ham sandwiches, and no Pops’ Punch.
Only the program in your hand and the blue-blazered men and women filing onto the stage told you where you were and what you were doing. One of those men, incidentally, was John Barwicki, who has been playing in the Boston Pops since before the time of Arthur Fiedler.
The concert had been sold out for two weeks; the type in the program had been set, and the only way to announce this special occasion was to put a box in the middle of all the white space to tell the crowd that on Jan. 10 John Williams was appointed the 19th conductor of Boston Pops. This, officially, then was among his last appearances as a guest conductor – but it was something special and more than that.
John Williams was on the spot. In press conferences in London and in Boston, he had already demonstrated that he knew all the right things to say; in a rehearsal in Symphony Hall yesterday, he had demonstrated to the orchestra that he knew his business; now it was up to him to demonstrate to the public that he knew how to get across to them.
Important people had been squeezed into the “Sold Out” house – the power brokers of the National Music Management; members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) board; the orchestra’s music director Seiji Ozawa; Johanna Fiedler, the daughter of Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Pops for a legendary 50-year tenure; Samantha Winslow, Williams’ fiancee; and a large deputation of the press, newspapers, televisions, and radio (Gene Shalit was checking Williams out for this morning’s appearance on the Today Show).
But Williams, when he bounded out onto the stage at 8:07 p.m. immediately demonstrated that his concern was with the whole audience, and not with just the important guests. Thousands were there who had bought their tickets before they knew this was going to be a historic occasion, thousands who represent the millions who form the audience of the Pops, thousands of people there because they like to have a good time with music.
The evening tested the Pops’ new conductor in three ways, as a program builder, a composer, and a conductor – and he passed all three tests with flying colors.
The program began with his own spirited Coplandesque “Cowboys” overture, a work drawn from the score William’s wrote seven years ago for a John Wayne film. As it began, William’s had his hand on his hip, and for all the fact that he was in a conductor’s penguin suit, he looked for all the world like The Duke about to push open the saloon doors. Within moments however, he was showing himself as a real musician, spiritedly and expansively guiding the music to its destination.
Nothing could have been a greater contrast to this than the Faure “Pavane” that followed, in which Williams insisted on a classical rubatto, the pizzicatto accompaniment absolutely even, while the Pops’ solo wind and massed strings floated their expressive melody over it.
Then came concert master Emanuel Borok’s fire-and-brimstone performance of Saint-Saens’s Violin Concerto. This is not a standard work Williams can have known since childhood; nothing in Isaac Stern’s recording can have prepared him for the chances Borok was going to take, the fullness of personal expression he was going to bring to it. But Williams was there all the way, glorying with his soloist in that open-throated G-string, catching every shift, mood and tempo, giving specific directions to the orchestra every measure of the way.
At intermission, Borok was sweaty but happy. “I like this. He is famous and talented – and a nice guy too. It’s too much.”
In the meantime Ozawa had taken Johanna Fiedler for a drink in the Carnegie Bar. “It’s the first time in 15 years I come through the front door,” Ozawa said with a laugh. Solicitous of Johanna Fiedler’s feelings – “Is a very difficult night for her” – he didn’t talk much about the concert but he looked like a happy man. “It’s a good start,” he said, and she smiled in agreement.
Williams devoted the second half of the concert to music from the movies, to a suite from Frederick Loewe’s “Gigi,” and to excerpts from three of his own film scores, “Superman,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and, assuredly, “Star Wars.” His own music showed up the conventionality of the arrangements of Loewe’s work, but Williams treated everything with dignity and respect, even when climax was piling upon climax, and the suite of the orchestral writing was capitalizing on the whole history of music. Surely the idiom of Penderecki can never have been heard at Pops concert before Williams wrote his “Close Encounters,” which modulates into all the tenderness, sweetened by the celeste, of the end of “Der Rosenkavalier.”
The playing in everything was better than anybody could have possibly expected, given the limits of rehearsal, and Williams was wonderful to look at – particularly delightful in “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” a song from “Gigi” in which his body bobbed up and down with the pizzicatto. With all of this, who needed the Silver Screen? At the end there were two encores, a stirring and witty march from the score Williams wrote for “1941,” and Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band.” But of course by then the band had already been struck up, and wonderfully, for nearly two hours.
Backstage, a sweaty yellow towel, tossed at BSO assistant manager Gideon Toeplitz, was a signal from Williams that he was on his way up to his dressing room.
Within a few moments he was dapper in a blue suit and tie and ready to greet his fans. The first of them burst into the room and said, “A star is born!” Williams just said he felt great. His fiancee, perched on a table next to a recently popped bottle of Piper Hiedsick, said her fingers hurt from putting in and pulling out William’s shirt staves. “Some things are going to have to change around here,” she said.
Not many, one hoped. It didn’t look like a Pops Concert, no, it didn’t. But Williams made it feel like one – because he made it sound like one.