‘Pops’ Williams to Retire in ’93’ (1991)


By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, December 20th, 1991
John Williams will retire as conductor of the Boston Pops at the close of the 1993 season. Williams informed Pops management of his decision late last week and told the orchestra at last night’s Christmas Pops concert.
In a conversation earlier this week, Williams said, “This year I turn 60 and I have been thinking very seriously about how I want to spend my time. I never thought I would become a professional conductor; composing has always been my first love. For the last 11 years I have been carrying on two simultaneous careers, which has been both gratifying and rewarding.
“I am as keen about the Pops as I ever was, but now I want to work less, both as a conductor and as a composer for films. I want to take the time to write some concert music, to travel less, and read, walk, and spend time with my grandchildren.”
For the next two seasons Williams will continue to lead the Pops in concert in Boston, at Tanglewood and on tours of America and Japan; he will continue taping television programs and CDs. He says he is eager to continue his association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Pops, and he has agreed to become artist-in-residence at the Tanglewood Music Center, effective immediately and permanently, according to Boston Symphony Orchestra executive director Kenneth Haas.
“I am not sure what capacity I will continue in,” Williams said, “but this has been a big investment for all of us, the orchestra, the management and me, and it is a family relationship. I love Tanglewood as a kind of spiritual retreat; I have spent most of my life in the commercial world, so I love imbibing that atmosphere. And Tanglewood in the summer does have California weather!”
Williams is the most successful composer of film music in the history of the medium. Two current pictures have Williams scores, “Hook” and “JFK.” Ten of the 12 top grossing films in history have scores by Williams (among them “Home Alone,” “E.T.,” “Star Wars,” “Return of the Jedi” and ”Jaws”).
It was therefore a surprise when Williams, who had never been a public performer, agreed to succeed Arthur Fiedler and become the 20th conductor of the Boston Pops in January 1980.
But Williams had had a long and versatile career in music, and he adapted quickly to his new responsibilities. He studied piano with Rosina Lhevinne, trainer of great virtuosos like Van Cliburn, and composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. He made a career as a jazz pianist, Johnny Williams, and arranged albums for such diverse Columbia Records stars as Mahalia Jackson and Doris Day.
He entered films as a rehearsal pianist for “South Pacific” in 1958; he has since scored more than 70 movies, ranging from “Tammy Goes to Rome” to ”The Towering Inferno” to such film-music classics as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In the process, Williams has won four Oscars (and been nominated for 28) and 15 Grammies.
With the Pops and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestras, Williams has toured the United States and Japan, recorded 20 best-selling CDs for Philips and, more recently, three for Sony Classics (with three more still unreleased) and taped more than 50 award-winning television programs. The Pops under his tenure regained a momentum that had slowed during the last years of Arthur Fiedler’s 50-year reign as conductor, and the only problems that became public arose in 1985, when Williams resigned because of discipline problems in the orchestra and then agreed to return.
“At 60,” Williams said, “you are not exactly creaking with age, but you have to be realistic about how much energy you have and where you want to put it.
“I am not leaving the Pops because I want to spend more time in Hollywood; I want to scale back there, too. I never thought of myself as a performer, and the best use I can make of my time and talent is to write music, and so I want to concentrate on that, to think about the pieces I am writing, give them time and breathing room.
“Next spring I am writing a bassoon concerto for the New York Philharmonic and its principal player, and that is exactly the kind of thing I would like to do more of. I want to devote more time to serious musical composition — but don’t worry, I will always remember the advice of Vaughan Williams to a younger composer who had presented him with pages of crabbed counterpoint: ‘Young man, if a tune should ever occur to you, don’t fail to write it down.’ ”
Williams also elaborated on his hopes of spending more time with his family.
“I have three grandchildren now, one of them already 9, and I am closer to my own children now that they are in their 30s than I was when they were growing up. Between ‘Hook,’ ‘JFK’ and Pops responsibilities, I have not had a day off since early in the summer, and that made me crazy; I missed being around the youngsters more. There’s a speech in ‘Hook’ about that — childhood doesn’t last long, so don’t miss it.”
Williams believes there is “a strong future” for the Pops and plans to spend the next two seasons working toward it.
“At a time when all the arts are being urged to broaden their demographic range, and rightly so, the Pops is in a better position to do it than many other organizations. Major arts institutions have been criticized for relying solely on our European heritage. The Pops has never defined its repertory and its mission so narrowly, and so the relevance of the Pops to people’s lives is as sharp and keen as it ever was — it reaches out to audiences without pandering to them.”
Williams is fully aware of the accomplishments of his years at the Pops; he is both eager to share the credit and disarmingly modest.
“I think all of us have done a good job in keeping the Pops vital, in building a bridge between Arthur Fiedler and the present. I will be leaving at the right time; the institution is growing, the television is going well, the new relationship with Sony Classics is successful.
“I think the Pops is better off now than it was 10 years ago, and because I’m not leaving tomorrow, there is time to make it still better before I retire. But I also really believe in my heart of hearts that 10 years from now the Pops will be better still. And not to mimimize the difficulty of the job, I think if I can do it, anybody can.”