‘John Williams Listens to the Song of a Tree’ (2000)

The Boston Globe, page N2, July 2nd, 2000
John Williams has composed a new concert work for the opening weekend at Tanglewood, “TreeSong” – a work inspired by the composer’s favorite tree in the Public Garden. Williams, violinist Gil Shaham, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra will premiere the work during Saturday night’s concert in the Shed.
When Williams was in town a few weeks ago to conduct the Pops, he posed for photographs next to his beloved dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, and came to lunch to talk about the piece, and about some of his other recent activities.
“For years,” Williams said, “I loved to take walks in the Public Garden, and I grew infatuated with this Chinese tree, the dawn redwood, which stands in the southwest corner. It not only looked lovely, but it seemed animate, even intelligent.”
A “serendipitous” experience followed for Williams. Through the Boston Symphony’s physician, Dr. Eng-Hwi Kwa, he met Dr. Siu-Ying Hu, a retired Harvard University botanist. One afternoon, he was taking a walk through the Arnold Arboretum with Hu. “I was speaking to her about the tree I loved so much in the Public Garden when she stopped me. `Is it like this one?’ she asked, pointing to a nearby tree. I said it was, and she said, `I planted them, back in the 1940s.’ ”
Until 1945, Metasequoia was thought to be extinct; it was known only in fossil specimens. “But then, in the western part of China, near Tibet, some standing forests of these trees were discovered,” Williams said – fewer than 1,000 of them, according to botanists. “When Dr. Hu came to America, she brought a pound of seeds and the trees have flourished here; she helped insure this survivor from the Jurassic era.”
Last season, Shaham recorded Williams’s Violin Concerto for Deutsche Grammophon. There has been considerable discussion about what to use to complete the CD; Williams rejoiced in the opportunity to write “TreeSong” about his favorite dawn redwood. The 18-minute piece is in one continuous movement divided into three sections. The first is his response to Hu and the Metasequoia; the second evokes the “trunk, branches, and leaves” of the tree; the third is called “The Tree Sings.” Williams says there is nothing in the music to suggest the Asian origin of the tree, “but I hope people will hear that there is a sylvan atmosphere! The orchestration calls for 2 harps, 2 keyboards, and 4 flutes, along with a lot of delicate percussion. I hope the Tanglewood stage will be good for it.”
Williams’s most recent film score was for “The Patriot,” which opened last week. “We finished about two weeks before I came to Boston for the Pops. I think it is a wonderful film, and a useful film – I think most of us are better-informed about the Civil War than we are about the Revolutionary War. It’s a big score, about 100 minutes of music, and I spent about three months on it.”
The next picture will be “AI” (for “Artificial Intelligence”). “This was a script that Stanley Kubrick was working on. Steven Spielberg knew about it, and at one point, Kubrick said to him, `You know, you should direct this picture.’ After Kubrick died, Steven bought the material; he’s going to start shooting next month, and the picture will be out a year from now.
“A lot of other things are in the works, but I’m not free to talk about them yet,” Williams continued. “You can never predict what you’re going to get when you embark on a film project. You think you have controlled everything and then an extra element creeps in, the elusive part of the magic. If you could control that factor, every film would be a masterpiece. In music, sometimes a player brings less than what you had imagined in your mind’s ear; then there are those occasions when the player brings you more than you had ever imagined.”
He plans to spend most of the summer in the little cottage he rents near Tanglewood. “I will do one concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but I’ve planned a light summer for performing. After the opening weekend concert with the Boston Symphony, I will do two Pops concerts later in the season. One of them will be a film night, and the other an end-of-summer concert.”
For film night, Williams hoped to revive one of his major projects of last year, “Millennium 2000,” which was performed on New Year’s Eve in Washington, D.C., with a prestigious narrator, President Clinton. “I met Hillary Clinton in Washington at the time of the premiere of `Amistad,’ and she talked to me about working with Steven Spielberg to create some special event for the millennium. A year went by and we heard no more about it, but early last year we got the go-ahead to develop a 20-minute film about America in the 20th century. The film is in several tableaux. The first section is about building – the Empire State Building, the interstate highway system, and things like that. The second was about the wars of the century, and Steven found some spectacular footage of aerial battles during World War II. There was then a section about entertainment and sports that featured everybody from Joe DiMaggio to Mark McGwire. The film closed with civil rights and women’s issues. All of us agreed that the film would stress flight as the greatest achievement of the century. Some of the text came from Lincoln and other great figures, but we also asked for new texts by three contemporary poets, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, and Maya Angelou.”
Williams led excerpts from his score with the Pops, but thinks it unlikely that he will be able to carry through his plan to link film to score at Tanglewood. “Most of the footage became available to Steven on a one-time-use basis, and at the special request of the White House. It’s not possible to use it again, even for a fund-raising event, although I’m still trying. Fortunately, the score is performable without the film, and I’ve recorded it for Sony with a freelance orchestra in LA. In Washington, we wound up with the Baltimore Symphony because neither the National Symphony nor the Boston Symphony was available. The Baltimore Symphony is a very good orchestra.”
The forthcoming Sony CD will also include some of Williams’s other occasional music. “It will have the variations on `Happy Birthday’ that I wrote for the `Three Birthdays’ concert at Tanglewood – Yo-Yo Ma’s 40th, Itzhak Perlman’s 50th, and Seiji Ozawa’s 60th – and a piece I wrote for Seiji’s worldwide satellite hookup from Japan, and another piece called `Jubilee 350.’ ”
One of Williams’s most prestigious premieres was the Cello Concerto he composed for Yo-Yo Ma to play at the opening of Seiji Ozawa Hall in 1994. Ma has recorded many of the concertos written for him, but not yet Williams’s. The composer is now ready for it to happen – dissatisfied with the original finale, Williams has written a new one. “When the opportunity to perform the work at the opening of the hall arose, I was in a frenzy to finish it in time. Once I heard it, one of the things I wanted to do was reduce the orchestration and adjust the balances. When Yo-Yo was engaged to play the concerto with Leonard Slatkin in Washington, D.C., I worked on it, and then embarked on a major rewrite of the finale, putting in more extended lyrical themes, more opportunities for Yo-Yo to play singing, cantilena lines. I am now much happier about the piece. I hope we can record this for Sony within the next year.”
Williams plans to keep composing throughout his Tanglewood summer. He has two major commissions for concert works to complete: He’s writing a horn concerto for Dale Clevenger and the Chicago Symphony, and Seiji Ozawa has asked him to compose a Concerto for Orchestra to mark his farewell as music director.
“There’s always a lot to do,” Williams says, and from the sound of it, having a lot to do is what makes him happy.