A brief reflection on John Williams’ unprecedented career path, from a small recording studio in Hollywood to one of Europe’s most prestigious classical institutions
October 18, 1956. A few months after leaving the Juilliard School of Music in New York, a young 24-year old pianist named John Williams entered the Radio Recorders studio in Hollywood, California and sat at the piano to record a couple of solo pieces which would become part of his very first solo commercial recording, a jazz album called The John Towner Touch. The two selections were a lovely piano solo rendition of George Gershwin’s classic “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess” from Porgy & Bess, and the very first composition by John Willams ever published on record, a breezy 3-minute solo piece titled “Hello”. It was the first testament of the talent of a musician who would become one of the most famous and celebrated composers in the world and whose name is a legend for billions of people around the globe. But back then, he was a young lad from Flushing, Queens, New York, who moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1948 and then went to Juilliard to study piano, before returning to LA and marrying young actress Barbara Ruick.
In addition to the two solo piano pieces, the album contains lively and crisp arrangements for jazz quartet of some classic tunes by Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers and Noel Coward. Joining the young Williams, we find such top jazz musicians as Joe Mondragon (bass), Jack Sperling (drums) and Howard Roberts (guitar). The 12-track album was released in July 1957 on the Kapp Records label and the original pressing is today a true collector’s item. It’s curious to notice that Williams used his middle name, Towner, likely to avoid confusion with another jazz pianist called John Williams who was active in the same years. Perhaps for the same reason, he credited himself as “Johnny Williams” for his own composition, a name he would use until the late 1960s.
October 14, 2021. After almost exactly 65 years, i.e. seven decades of uninterrupted work in the field of music, and very close to reach the venerable age of 90, John Williams is steppiung on the podium of Berlin’s magnificent Philharmonie Hall to make his conducting debut with the legendary Berliner Philharmoniker, one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious musical institutions, in a concert of his beloved compositions written for the cinema, including many timeless masterpieces like Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and, of course, Star Wars. It’s another milestone in the career of this artist, which in this late phase of his life is seeing his work finally celebrated and lauded in some of the temples of classical music in Europe, the cradles of the Western music. The recent announcement that in next June he’s going to conduct the Filarmonica della Scala Orchestra in a concert at the legendary Teatro alla Scala in Milano, Italy, sounds like the ultimate fulfillment.
This is a historic moment not just because of the sheer popularity of the composer himself, which of course has to be duly noted. It’s the testament of a life spent in full dedication to music, in constantly improving and finessing his own art, craftsmanship and musicianship with utmost care. It’s also the culmination of the sincere love that millions of people continue to show toward his music, and the subsequent inspiration he gives to many aspiring musicians across the globe, as it was already pointed out in other articles on this website. And John Williams continued to pay back to audiences and young musicians, offering his music and his brilliant presence on the podium across the United States and now also in Europe. He’s one of the most generous musical citizens of the world.
It’s with such joyful, exciting and vivid feeling that we’re about to leave for Berlin and be witnesses of another event that will go down in the annals of music history.
You can watch the live stream of the Saturday 16 October concert of John Williams conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker via the orchestra’s official digital platform Digital Concert Hall (subscription needed): https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/concert/53783