“Music is music”: Interview with Richard Kaufman

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American conductor Richard Kaufman (Portrait by Kevin McIntyre)

In the recent years, film music has seen almost an explosion of presence into the programs of many symphony orchestra around the world. The repertoire of great music written for films is nowadays seen as a very strong pole that is able to attract new and wider audiences into the concert halls. The immediacy of the lexicon used by film music, coupled with the fond memories of some great classic movies, is helping to shape a new generation of listeners toward the beauty of symphonic music and classical repertoire. The music of John Williams has played a pivotal role, as it’s been embraced by millions of people around the world and continues to be one of the most beloved to listen to live when people packs concert halls. This happened especially thanks to the strong endorsement and tireless enthusiasm of several conductors who are especially keen toward film music and Williams’ own repertoire. One of these musical heroes is American conductor Richard Kaufman.

Unquestionably, Kaufman has been one of the leading interpreters of film music for many years, and is one of the most passionate advocates of the great music literature written for films. His career is a shining resume: he’s the Principal Pops Conductor of Orange County’s esteemed Pacific Symphony Orchestra since 28 years. He also holds the title of Pops Conductor Laureate of the Dallas Symphony and he continues his engagement with the prestigious Chicago Symphony conducting for their CSO at the Movies series. He has also guest-conducted numerous major symphony orchestras both on U.S. soil as well as around the world, including the Cleveland Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In September 2018, he conducted the first “Pops-style” program of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Kaufman received a Grammy Award in 1993 for a recording with the Nuremberg Symphony.

Kaufman is a major champion of performing film music live in concert. He regulary guest conducts around the world, presenting film-themed programs. In 2011, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a special tribute concert to the music of the legendary film composer Dimitri Tiomkin (also released on CD and digital by LSO Live label). Richard Kaufman is also one of the leading interpreters of the “films in concert” shows, where entire scores are performed live accompaning the film as it is shown to the audience. These films include classic motion pictures such as Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho, Amadeus, Singin’ in the Rain, as well as John Williams’ scores for the Star Wars series, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Home Alone. In 2015, he had the honor of substituting for John Williams at the annual Boston Pops Film Night. In April 2018, he was invited by Williams to share the podium in a series of concerts with the Chicago Symphony.

Kaufman’s strong relationship with the music of John Williams dates back to 1975, when he was a session violinist playing in Los Angeles for film music recordings. Between 1975 and 1977, Kaufman performed in the violin section for the scores of Jaws, The Eiger Sanction, Black Sunday, Family Plot, Midway and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This unique position gave him a special insight into Williams’ music, while also witnessing the composer’s path into worldwide success during those years. Since then, Richard has shared a personal friendship with John Williams that continues to the present day. He kindly accepted to be interviewed for The Legacy of John Williams, offering his own reflections about John Williams’ music and also his own conducting and performing career.

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Richard Kaufman and John Williams

I’d like to ask about your musical background. When did you decide to become a professional musician and where did you get your musical training?

I began playing the violin at age 7. In our home, my parents played recordings of all kinds of music and I grew to love everything from classical to broadway to film music. It was an exciting childhood of musical discovery. By the time I was in high school (age 15), I had pretty much decided that I wanted to be a professional musician. However I didn’t really focus on one specific genre of music, and that has been the case my entire career.

You’re also an accomplished violinist and you played in orchestras in the la area in many film recordings in the 1970s. Do you have any special memory about your time as a studio musician?

I played in the studios for around 9 years and loved it. It was an opportunity to work with incredible musicians, as well as with some of Hollywood’s greatest composers. So many expereinces come to mind, but of course I would have to say playing on six of John Williams’ scores would be at the top of the list.

Did your background as an orchestra member helped your conducting skills and your transition to the podium?

I view my conducting from the point of view of an orchestral player. I learned everything I know about conducting from my experiences as a player, whether in the studio or as a symphonic orchestral musician. There is so much to know…The Music, the leadership skills, communication with the baton…the list goes on and on.

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Richard Kaufman conducting

When was the first time you met John Williams? And what was the first score you performed with him as violinist?

I met John on the recording sessions for Jaws. It was my first time playing violin on one of his scores. I was the ripe old age of 27.

What where your impressions about his music? What were the main challenges as an orchestra player when performing Williams’ film music under his baton?

John’s music speaks for itself, and certainly the score for Jaws was one of the finest examples of his composing. He writes so intelligently for each instrument, and his demeanor on the podium creates an instant respect and excitement among the musicians.

You performed a lot of film music as a conductor and you also regularly conduct Williams’ music in concert around the world. What have you discovered about his music after studying it for concert performance?

Film music is a very special art form. It exists within the film to accompany the action and characters, but as John’s music has proven, it also can stand alone in the concert hall. His melodies, harmonies, and the way he constructs a concert suite is amazing. He is the master, and audiences and musicians around the world have, for years, shown their admiration and love for his music at every performance, and they continue to do so.

Do you have any particular piece, or score, by Williams that you like to conduct more than others? And do you have some personal favourite among his lesser-known works, or things that should be more widely performed?

That’s like asking a parent of several children “who’s your favorite child?”. I love conducting all of John’s music because there is so music contrast in his writing based on the various styles of films for which he has created the music. Planning a concert of John’s music is like being in the world’s greatest restaurant and having dozens of choices, each one absolutely delicious and memorable. Among his lesser-konwn works…if there even are lesser-known works of John Williams…I would have to say The Reivers is one of my favorites of all his scores. His use of the colors of the orchestra is remarkable. It’s also a terrific film.

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Williams’ film music is now widely performed by orchestras around the world and very widely accepted and acclaimed by many musical institutions. Do you think we’re living an era where his music is judged and valued more fairly and correctly than in the past?

I think that anyone who spends time “judging” John’s music is missing out on the most important thing…simply enjoying the music! Everyone seems to have an opinion about everything these days, whether it be food, politics, the weather, sports, clothing, the arts. So much time spent on judging, and not enough time just enjoying something for what it is. I feel sorry for those who miss the beauty because they’re spending so much time analyzing.

Williams’ music had an enormous impact over at least two generations of listeners and musicians. He ignited a lot of enthusiasm for symphonic music in young people and brought them closer to the great classical repertoire of the past. What do you think his legacy will be for future generations and what will be his place in music history?

John’s legacy will be the music that the world has come to know and love. His use of the symphonic orchestra is beyond compare, whether it be in the world of film music or classical concert music. He is keeping alive the sound of the orchestra in films. and for young people today, he is their connection to not only film music, but also to the musical sounds of Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Mahler, and so many others.

You also have a personal friendship with Mr. Williams. Does he give you any insight about his music when you’re preparing a concert of his music?

I have been blessed to know John for over 43 years. We aren’t together very often, but whenever we are, it is for me a very special time, both personally and professionally. He is always interested in what music I’m programming for concerts of his music. And as I said earlier, his music really speaks for itself. My job is to do all I can to present it in the way that John envisioned it when he created it.

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Richard Kaufman conducting

You performed live and recorded a lot of film music as a conductor. The repertoire (also thanks to Williams’ music) is now more popular than ever. What place does film music occupy in the general canon of contemporary orchestral music?

As the great composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold once said, “music is music, whether it be for the cinema or the concert hall”. Film music accompanies a movie in the exact same way opera music accompanies an opera…or ballet music accompanies a ballet. I think the world so often comparmentalizes music so that there is a great deal of judging the music rather than just letting the music speak for itself. I’ve done concerts where i’ve programmed a Brandenburg Concerto by Bach and then, later in the concert, we’ve played Star Wars. If the audience enjoys both, then why not give them both. Of course it has to be planned carefully so that the program doesn’t feel like “Mr. Toad’s wild ride”. Still, it can be done successfully.

Would you be interested in presenting selections or suite of film music in a program mixed together with some other orchestral works of the late 19th/early 20th century? Or does film music need to be presented and performed in specific “film night”-themed programs?

I think I answered that in the previous question. And I would not limit the choices to any particular century. I’m not sure who made the rule to keep classical music away from film music, and vice versa. Whoever may have come up with that “edict” should probably consider selling shoes. Seriously, because human emotions are created by all kinds of music, then why must musical genres be kept separate from each other. Is it to “protect the audience”, or to “protect the music”, or what? I believe that great music will remain great even if it’s presented right along side other great music. And again, to use the wise words of Korngold, “music is music”.

A very special thanks to Richard Kaufman for his accepting to be interviewed and for the permission to use the photos used in the article.

You can learn more about Richard’s conducting career, list of recordings and upcoming performances around the world on his official website: http://www.kaufmanconductor.com/

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