‘Pop Star: The Legacy of John Williams’ (1993)

The Boston Globe, page B21, December 12th, 1993
John Williams leads his final concert as conductor of the Boston Pops on Dec. 20.
The statistics on his tenure are pretty staggering: 13 seasons, more than 300 concerts, six national or international tours, 24 premieres and commissions, 28 CDs and nearly 50 television shows.
Along the way, Williams has brought some of the leading artists of several musical worlds to the Pops — Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Jessye Norman, Yo- Yo Ma, James Galway, Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Kathleen Battle, Oscar Peterson, Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, John and Bonnie Raitt, Tommy Tune, Joan Baez, Nell Carter, Roberta Flack, Rosemary Clooney, Linda Ronstadt, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.
He was among the first to present violin prodigy Sarah Chang; what may be more significant, in the long run, is the list of young performers, many of them locally based, who appeared with Williams and the Pops, particularly in his early seasons. Williams was also particularly supportive of musicians in both the Pops and the Pops Esplanade orchestras. Williams appeared in recital with a former Pops concertmaster; trumpeter Timothy Morrison went back to Hollywood with Williams to star on two film soundtracks.
The other important thing to say is how often the statistics represented really good stuff — an achievement that is all the more remarkable when you realize the almost-impossible conditions of schedule under which the Pops rehearses and performs.
During Arthur Fiedler’s last seasons, the great old man’s health was deteriorating, and, along with it, the morale and the artistic standards of the Pops. Williams may not have arrived with any idea of how big the job was and how much work it would entail, but he did come with a musician’s ear and a very clear conception of what things ought to sound like, and he made them sound that way.
Any successor to Fiedler had big shoes to fill — they may have been 50 years old, but they were stoutly made. Williams succeeded because it simply wouldn’t have occurred to him to try to imitate Fiedler, any more than it would have occurred to him to try to remake the Pops in his own image — though that’s what ultimately happened, because that is what artists do.
Williams took from Fiedler what worked: the shape of the program, the mix of music, putting the spotlight not only on celebrities but on members of the orchestra and young musicians. Williams improved discipline and morale and raised the standard of performance. He brought in guest conductors of competence and distinction, including a few from the concert world, and he took wary pride in the achievement of young proteges, like the assistant conductor, Ronald Feldman. He brought in lively new material, freshened up some old arrangements and shook up the repertory. Two Pops commissions were particularly successful: John Corigliano’s “Promenade Overture,” which has been widely played in America, and Peter Maxwell Davies’ “An Orkney Wedding: With Sunrise,” which has become the composer’s most popular work and entered the standard international repertory.
The main reason Williams took the job in 1980 was to win greater recognition for the artistic legitimacy of his life work in film and the life work of many of his colleagues. Whether he succeeded in that aim (it’s too early to tell), he certainly brought film music out of the background and into the limelight. Now people can judge for themselves. And other pops concerts all across the country have followed his example.
More staggering than the statistics is the fact that Williams has accomplished all this as a part-time job; his primary commitment always has been to his work in Hollywood. Fortunately, there were always good people on the case here in Boston; the role of “Evening at Pops” television producer William Cosel should not be underestimated.
Williams’ double life has been a source of great strength. Like most great strengths, it represents a corresponding drawback. When Williams is busy elsewhere, he is very busy, and in the last few seasons, he has withdrawn from active involvement in the day-to-day activities of the Pops. This has led to a kind of caste system — the splashy, Williams-propelled events on record and TV, and the backbone business of presenting concerts that a lot of people enjoy going to. It may be that Williams represents the electronic future that is already at hand; you can see the same situation at the Met, where there can be a big artistic gap between the things James Levine is connected with and everything else, and Levine has reached the stage of life where he is not as interested in a backbreaking schedule of pit performances as he is in recording and television projects that capitalize on all that backbreaking work.
The point to remember, though, is that what the media are trying to reproduce is a form of human contact and interaction — and that is something John Williams never lost touch with. He was a reluctant public figure, which was a source of his appeal. As a podium personality, Williams was initially a bit stiff, but it wasn’t long before he started to enjoy making a spectacle of
himself, once he got out there. Persuading John Williams to do anything can be a long process; once persuaded, there’s no stopping him.
The great strength of Williams’ part-time commitment to the Pops was that it was whole-hearted. Williams came at the Pops from an unexpected direction, and every year he returned to it fresh. At the core of the extraordinary relationship Williams built both with musicians and audiences is their realization “he doesn’t have to be doing this. He certainly doesn’t need the money; he is not doing this out of personal motives, or to advance his career.” Williams, who spends most of his life working in a notoriously commercial, manipulative and superficial business, has kept himself an honest man — that is the bedrock upon which he has built these two extraordinary careers of his. People trust John Williams (though they might not buy a used car from a man wearing a belt like his!). Williams is not “crossing over” to make a quick buck — this musical world is where he lives.
Williams certainly knows every trick of orchestration in the book, and he
invented a few himself, but the most important observation to make about his music is that he believes in it and it is honest. You can’t write heroic music if you don’t believe in heroism; it would ring hollow. You can’t write patriotic music if you don’t have patriotic feelings. In a way, a mass-media composer like Williams is a truer successor to populist composers like Verdi than most operatic composers today.
The most notorious moment in Williams’ tenure at the Pops came a decade ago, when he temporarily resigned because of an incident in rehearsal, when people who should have known better were giggling and carrying on during a piece of his called “America, The Dream Goes On.” For Williams, the dream does continue, despite all the tragedies and disruptions of our collective history, and surely some of the most eloquent music he has composed came in the scores to “Born on the Fourth of July” and “JFK.”
Williams’ best music comes out of some deep place in his imagination and reaches that same place in the imagination of the listener. It is a question of belief. Was Carrie Fisher really an enchanting creature, or did a line Williams composed for the flute create that enchantment?
That same kind of belief has informed all his work at the Pops. The management will not be able to find another John Williams to replace him, any more that it was able to find another Arthur Fiedler. What the two men shared was that quality of belief, and any successor to Williams must have it, too.
The Pops has fun celebrating what is genuine and lasting about the ephemeral; the moment it loses touch with that, it runs the risk of swiftly becoming ephemeral itself. In many ways an otherworldly figure, John Williams never lost touch with that reality — and that is why it is good that, as ”Conductor Laureate,” he wants to make himself quietly useful at Tanglewood and to continue to play any role his successor wants him to in the life of the Pops. John Williams may be withdrawing from one area of his public activities, but you can’t retire a touchstone.