‘Williams Says Pops Well-Tempered for Upcoming Season’ (1988)

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page 110, May 1st, 1988
Last week, John Williams had conducted his first Pops rehearsal of the season, and he pronounced himself well-satisfied. “I think the orchestra is in the best shape it’s been in since I came here.”
Over an abstemious seafood-salad lunch, Williams talked about his recent activities and his plans for the Pops season, which opens Tuesday night in a gala program featuring vocalist Dionne Warwick. “Dionne and I go back a long time, to ‘The Valley of the Dolls’ in 1967 — I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. Andre Previn wrote the score, but he had to go to London, so I arranged and conducted the music. Dionne has a unique sound and she’s a beautiful lady; I’ve tried for years to get her at the Pops, so this is a nice way to begin the season.”
The Dionne Warwick program will be the first of several Pops concerts taped this season for later television broadcst. “Tommy Tune will come along with the Manhattan Rhythm Kings for a special tribute to Fred Astaire. Sid Ramin has done some new arrangements of the Astaire tunes for us. Then the Smothers Brothers will be coming, and we will have Byron Stripling, the lead trumpet in the Count Basie Orchestra for a Louis Armstrong tribute. Stripling has reconstructed some of Armstrong’s most famous solos. We will do a Fourth of July television program from the Esplanade. And I’m particularly pleased that Perry Como will be coming to do a tribute to Bing Crosby. I love Perry Como, and I have wanted to have him with the Pops for years, but it has been difficult to plan because of Perry’s commitments to one of the major networks. A year ago, though, I found myself sitting on a plane next to Betty Hutton who assured me that Perry would make every effort to come if we told him we wanted him for a tribute to Bing, and she was right. Our television season will also include two programs we taped last season, a program with Andre Watts in a sparky performance of the Mendelssohn G-Minor Concerto, and another program with Frederica von Stade.”
The von Stade taping, Williams explains, was the first one to use a new stage arrangement developed by PBS Pops producer William Cosell and takes advantage of a new camera crane. “The new stage brings the orchestra out beyond the proscenium a little more, so we lose a few seats. But arranging the orchestra in a semicircle around the podium, and on a series of descending tiers, helps correct the problem we have always had with sound slapping back from the back wall. We have new lighting, with more varied possibilities, and we have solved the problem of glare coming up off the floor. I think we have a real treasure in Bill Cosell — every year he comes to me with new ideas for making the programs look better and sound better. It is with undisguised pride that I point out that we now have a television contract through 1989, which will make it a 20 year-run for the Pops on PBS, 10 years with Arthur Fiedler and 10 years with me. For something to run 20 years on television is very remarkable, particularly when you realize how much every other orchestra is struggling to get on TV at all.”
In addition to the PBS series, Williams is excited by the prospect of another network television show to follow up on the success of ABC’s Liberty Weekend program in summer 1986. “This is important because the networks reach a much larger audience, and that makes it possible to interest artists who might not otherwise be available to appear with us.”
Records are also important to spreading the message of the Pops. Williams’ recording of Holst’s “The Planets” is just out, and there will be two more Philips releases before the end of the year — a record of British music, including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ “An Orkney Wedding: With Sunrise” and a record called “The Digital Jukebox.” Two additional records will be made this summer, an album of Russian music (“I want to call it ‘From Russia with Love,’ Williams says, “but no one agrees with me”), and an album to be called “Hooray for Hollywood” that will feature the Pops’ Judy Garland and Fred Astaire medleys as well as more recent film music, including excerpts from Williams’ own score to “The Witches of Eastwick.” A projected album featuring the music of the Beatles has been put off for a year because the arrangements aren’t ready.
Williams is pleased at this season’s roster of guest conductors, particularly because he has decided to cut back his own activity a little. ”I know people are sometimes disappointed that I don’t and can’t conduct every concert myself. Frankly, I find it physically difficult to rehearse and record during the day and then give a concert at night — I don’t see how Arthur Fiedler did it. Sometimes I wonder if he was really 85 when he died — maybe he was just 45, and the Pops aged him fast! My analogy is to a major-league pitcher — he couldn’t pitch every night, either, not without pulling his arm out of his socket. This year, we will have Erich Kunzel and John Covelli again, and Richard Hayman will be coming back for the first time in many years. Next to Arthur Fiedler, Hayman, through his arrangements, has made the largest single contribution to the success of the Pops. Max Hobart and Ronald Feldman from the orchestra will be conducting again, and Henry Rabinowitz will be back from London; for me, he’s family. After John Mauceri took over the tour of the Esplanade Orchestra last summer when I was sick, I was particularly anxious to have him back, and the Boston Symphony’s assistant conductor, Carl St. Clair, will also be with us. I like Carl’s youth and the way he is in touch with so many American things. Finally, I am very happy to say that Harry Ellis Dickson will be back, though I am afraid he is having a very busy year without us!”
The list of the season’s soloists is not yet complete, but among the orchestra members who will play are concertmaster Tamara Smirnova-Sajfar and violinist Lucia Lin, clarinetist Peter Hadcock, flutist Leone Buyse; violist Michael Zaretsky will appear with his former colleague, Emanuel Borok, now concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. Pianists Benjamin Pasternack and Jeffrey Kahane will play, and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii will narrate Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”
Tour plans are still in the making — because of past successes there is considerable demand for a return tour of Japan and a third cross-country American tour by the Pops Espalande Orchestra. And Williams cherishes the dream of touring with the Boston Pops Orchestra as well; he is especially anxious to travel to the Soviet Union. “I think they would go crazy for us.”
Another ambition that is still in the works is the fulfillment of Williams’ longstanding wish to record a film score with the Pops. “The schedule is always the problem. Our most famous near-miss was the score to ‘E.T.,’ but it would have taken seven days over a two-week period, and the time just wasn’t there. We also tried more recently with ‘Eastwick.’ It is still a terrific idea, and producers would love to have the prestige value of the Pops, but the problem will always be the same. A project like this would be a nice adjunct for the orchestra, but it is not as important as the concerts of the Boston Symphony.”
The ambitious commissioning program for new pieces specially conceived for the Pops by leading serious composers is also still in the works. “I hope that we will have the pieces by Joseph Schwantner and William Kraft in 1989, and the pieces by John Adams and Oliver Knussen the year after. As Virgil Thomson used to say, “TTT — tunes take time.”
Williams himself has had more “time for tunes” than usual lately because he didn’t compose a film score this spring, although he is committed to the new Indiana Jones film that is currently in production, and he hopes very much that a project on a South African subject he cannot discuss yet will work out. ”That is something that it would be important to do.” But he has not been idle. Recently, he composed and recorded themes for NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics — some of this music will be heard early in the Pops season. And he has written 50 new “bumpers” and themes ranging from 5 seconds to 3 minutes for use on the NBC evening news and during the forthcoming election coverage. “It’s very difficult to devise music for television,” Williams says, “in part because the sound is so bad. People leave the set on all the time, and so it becomes nothing more than the source of a constant noise level. So, I write fanfares in the hope of catching people’s attention. Actually, these days, synthesizer music is on television almost 24 hours a day. So when you write acoustic music, the way I do, you automatically get attention!”