A musician’s reflection on the acceptance of John Williams’ music by such great European classical institutions as Vienna and Berlin
We’re proud to present a reflection penned by Italian pianist and conductor Simone Pedroni (originally published by the Italian music magazine Musica) about John Williams’ concerts in Berlin and what they meant for the classical music community around the globe.
A Bet Won With History
by Simone Pedroni, pianist and conductor
A few days ago, I had the privilege to witness an event that film music fans could not even dream of: John Williams conducted three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, arguably the most famous orchestra in the world – even according to non-experts. This extraordinary event has at least another famous precedent, the two concerts with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Vienna Philharmonic back in January 2020, concerts which were met with unusual approval even by the lovers of “Classical music” or “Musica forte” (‘high profile music’, according to the definition given by music critic and theorist Quirino Principe).
The words that follow are not meant as a thorough review: they just record a series of impressions that come to my mind on the wave of the emotions I felt during the concerts. First of all, I may say that I have seen the decline of a traditional (though widely accepted) mentality according to which ‘film music’ is equal to ‘low profile music’. We can just think of Nino Rota, superficially regarded as a simple cinematografaro (i.e. a musician who just composes soundtracks) to have an idea of the way in which film music has been so far considered. This attitude marked the life and work of music giants. It even involved Ennio Morricone (perhaps the only one left untouched by music critics as they all acknowledged his genius) whose inner soul wanted to thrill millions of people not only with film soundtracks but also with his concert works.
But let’s talk about John Williams. Usually extremely reserved, he once said that there had been a most tragic event in his life, which had left him distraught. In 1974 his wife, actress Barbara Ruick, died suddenly of brain hemorrhage while she was filming California Split by Robert Altman, with whom Williams had previously collaborated for Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1974).
When I was about 40 years old, I lost somebody very very very close to me, unexpectedly; and before that point in my life, I didn’t know what I was doing. But after that point, in my writing, in my approach to music and in everything I was doing, I felt clear about what it is I was trying to do and how I could do it with whatever small gift I may have been given. It was a huge emotional turning point in my life that still resonates with me and taught me about who I was, what I was doing and what it meant. This is a deeply emotional thing… In a way, that was the greatest gift ever given to me, if I can put it that way, by anyone. Certainly a pivotal moment in my thinking, in my living my life and approaching the blank page. I immediately knew where to go with this emotionally”.John Williams
Left alone with their daughter and two sons, Williams soon became aware of the immense responsibility he had since then to bear both in his private and professional life – as this tragedy was inevitably bound to influence his work too. In a very profound way, he perceived how millions of people would have listened to his music while watching a film: this drove him to look for a special quality to his music, something unique, some kind of personal voice’. And this was not an easy task to accomplish. In this sense, Jaws (1975) was the beginning of a flood of scores extremely rich and complex from a musical point of view. Steven Spielberg – the ‘storyteller’- realized he was working with a composer who could actually captivate people’s body and soul through his movies, as if bicycles could really fly (as shown in a memorable scene from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, in 1982). Also, we must not overlook the fact that the sheer love most people feel for Williams’ music is rooted in the almost overwhelming grief he has experienced. This kept him honest toward his audience and has enabled us to give shape to our inner feelings and stories through his music. In it, we perceive the profound commitment and genuineness of someone who is true to himself. And this quality belongs only to very few people.
In the days that followed Williams’ first concert in Berlin, I watched several video interviews with some members of the orchestra. The youngest musicians said that they had grown up with Williams’ music and performing them live with the composer himself proved to be something unique, an impossible dream come true. The older ones (who confessed they hadn’t previously watched any of the films scored by Williams) were extremely happy to perform live what – until then – they knew only through their own complete collection of Williams’ recordings. Besides, for me as part of the audience, to see the musicians galvanized by the sober gesture of the conductor, proved to be an exceptional feat. Williams’ works – extremely challenging for every orchestra – were played with great emotional and physical intensity by the Berlin Phil. Each single piece was performed in a superb way, with many unforgettable moments like the solo horn at the beginning of Jurassic Park, the flamboyant wind section in “Nimbus 2000” from Harry Potter (a piece specifically written for that section of the orchestra) or the strings vibrant with passion in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then the bright brass in Superman. There were other memorable moments, as the radiant smile of the percussionist while playing two clashes with cymbals at the beginning of “The Throne Room and Finale” from Star Wars and the exuberant joy of the concertmaster who reacted with his entire body when Williams turned to look at the violin section. But the concert was also marked by a very intense moment. Bruno Delepelaire – the orchestra’s superb principal cellist – played as a soloist in the only work which was not taken from any soundtrack, the “Elegy” for cello and orchestra, composed by Williams for a tragic occurrence. Delepelaire played with touching melancholy this piece, dedicated to the children of a violinist who works with Williams in Hollywood Studios: her two kids were killed by their own father (who then took his life) as a most tragic outcome of a divorce lawsuit. “Elegy” helps us to grasp another aspect of Williams’ personality: his child soul, the ability to see the world with the innocent gaze of a child. Therefore, he gives us an unusual vision of death, one which does not focus on its tragic and gloomy aspect. Rather than that, Williams seems to paint a reality made of pale colours which evoke light and peace, as if the innocence of the two children could wash away any human sadness. As a matter of fact, while explaining to the audience the meaning of the term Elegy, Williams said that it may have different nuances: it can refer to the immense grief for the passing away of a dear one, or to a prayer – private or public (as it is for us all now, while listening to the music); but it may even symbolize some kind of forgiveness. He then took the microphone and, resorting to the understatement which is so typical of him, pointed out that we seldom realize that any soundtrack requires the dedication of an entire orchestra of professional musicians, who play complex music full of technical virtuosity… only to find that all their work is eventually spoiled by any kind of noise – including violent explosions and deafening spaceships’ clangours – which are part of the film. Particularly funny was his description of “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade: ‘You can just imagine what immense blow my ego suffered when I saw that scene at the movie premiere: all that was audible was the noise of the motorcycle – which, actually, was a sidecar’ (laughs from the audience)… ‘Now, there you go with the Scherzo without the noise and distraction of the movie!’
There’s another curious thing upon which I reflected. Several years ago, a survey was conducted about the film scores of Marvel supehero movies: the interviewer whistled a theme from one of those movies and nobody could recall it. But when he whistled the themes of E.T., Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, everyone immediately said ‘I know that!’. And all this points to another striking quality of Williams’ works: the absolute perfection of the pieces he composes, something that may be called ‘the inevitability of the themes’. But we can appreciate this ‘inevitability of the themes’ only upon their completion. As a matter of fact, the themes which are indelibly impressed in our mind are, for Williams, the most difficult and laborious ones to put into writing, something which may take even weeks. We can just think of the fact that the famous theme of Close Encounters is based on five notes, but it was the result of hundreds of different variations, all composed by Williams before choosing the one we all know. Today, Williams still complains about the fact that Spielberg insisted on ‘Five notes only!’: ‘Had I had the possibility of using at least eight notes, all would have been easier!’. This musical complexity has set the ground for scores that are complete in themselves (and of high impact, too) even if played in concert halls without the support of the images. The first impressive success of it was provided by the Star Wars Suite for Orchestra that was performed – soon after the release of the movie – by several orchestras (mostly american ones), and recorded by Zubin Metha with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (together with a similar piece from Close Encounters of the Third Kind). This mentality boosted in the following years, also thanks to the fact that Williams was Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980 to 1993, and he himself was the most prominent supporter of the return of the symphonic orchestra in Hollywood Studios. Besides his own works – wonderfully arranged for the concert halls – Williams disclosed works and scores of previous generations, who funded the Hollywood Sound – as Emilio Audissino explains in the only book about Williams written in English, The Film Music of John Williams: Reviving Hollywood’s Classical Style. Many of them were asylum seekers who had left Europe after the advent of Nazism such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, just to mention one of those. But all those musicians did, was to record their pieces for the movie, and that was all. The possibility of producing recordings of those soundtracks or delivering public performances based on them was not even taken into consideration.
Recently the Los Angeles Times, whose columns have held in the past harsh criticism against Williams (both as a composer and conductor) published a kind of paean about Williams’ credits. First of all, the fact that he has drawn generations of young people to symphonic music. This is the reason why Williams’ concerts are all sold-out (as the ones in Berlin), with an audience made not only of traditional habitué of symphonic music (the previously mentioned ‘musica forte’), but also of young people who never before have set foot in a concert hall. I can testify in person that Williams is an extremely accurate conductor who never indulges in any bossy attitude as his personality is characterized – even in his private life – by a rare sweetness even bordering on humbleness. When I performed for him the “Elegy” mentioned before together with cellist Cécilia Tsan, he first smothered us with congratulations, then switched to a more professional tone to work on the score. He modified a note in the cello part adding that ‘I always try to better myself, and I realized that this note had to be different’. Williams’ fate may be compared to that of Giacomo Puccini or Sergej Rachmaninov, often severely mistreated by the music critics, but immensely loved by the wider audience. Just listening to the Belin Philharmonic’s performance we come to realize – as cellist Delepelaire clearly states – that Hollywood musicians of his caliber (as Steiner, Korngold, Herrmann or Rósza, to name just a few) have inherited the legacy of European late romantic symphonic music after Mahler. The enthusiasm from the audience was palpable and it was marked by the standing ovations which followed any single performance during the first concert and all the other ones. Everybody acknowledged Williams’ talent: not only the youngest ones went crazy, but also the traditional concert goers. Everyone was also impressed by the fact that almost ninety-year-old John Williams conducted a two hour concert, always standing on the podium and never sitting down, not even for a single moment.
Next June, Williams will conduct a similar concert in Milan, at Teatro alla Scala, with the theater’s Orchestra Filarmonica, another important achievement in a most prolific career. John Williams was born in Queens in New York City, became a pianist with a jazz band of his own and studied with Van Cliburn’s teacher Rosina Lhévinne at the blazoned Juilliard School of New York. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a session pianist in order to financially support his family; for two summers he also studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and then became composer for several television shows. And he is now accredited as one of the most famous composers ever, someone whose works are performed by orchestras all over the world. Berlin’s consecration – sealed by standing ovations lasting over a 15 minutes at the end of the last concert even when, so to speak, the curtain had already been lowered – tells us, once more, that Williams’ music truly is ‘Musica forte’!
Simone Pedroni is an internationally renowned classical pianist and conductor. In 1993, at age 24, he was named Gold Medalist of the Ninth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. As a solo pianist, he appeared with many orchestras around the world including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Moscow Virtuosi, the Orchestra of Maggio Musicale – Florence, the RAI Orchestra – Turin, the Oslo Philharmonic, I Musici of Montreal, the Orchestra Giovanile Italiana, the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra Sinfonica I Pomeriggi Musicali, the Orchestra della Radio della Svizzera Italiana, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Rome, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the Belgium National Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, the Orquesta de Valencia and the Orquesta Nacional de España – Madrid. He performed under such esteemed conductors as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Zubin Mehta, Roberto Abbado, Stanislav Skrowaczewski and James Gaffigan.
As Artist-in-residence at the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano “Giuseppe Verdi”, Pedroni has performed with conductors such as Leonard Slatkin, Riccardo Chailly, Gianandrea Noseda, Lous Langrée, Lu Ja, Juanjo Mena, Xian Zhang and a Spain Tour with Oleg Caetani. His recital appearances have included the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Carnegie Hall in New York (Stern Hall), the Herkules Saal in Munich, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Quirinale in Rome, the Filharmonia Narodowa in Warsaw, the Settimane Musicali of Stresa, the Salle Gaveau in Paris, the Prague Spring Festival, the Palau de la Musica of Valencia, the Festival de Música de Canarias, the Delft Chamber Music Festival – Holland, the Festival de Menton, Bonn, Berlin, Hannover, Lisbon Athens, Istanbul, Montecarlo, Tel-Aviv and many others in USA, Japan and China.
A passionate film music champion in concert hall, in 2015, Simone Pedroni made his conductor debut with LaVerdi Orchestra and Choir performing John Williams’ “Star Wars: A Musical Journey”, a project conceived for the performance of all the original concert arrangements of the Star Wars saga. The project was specifically devised to attract a multicultural and young audience to a concert hall and become them familiar with the live sound and impact of a symphony orchestra, resulting in a series of five sold-out concerts in September 2015 and July 2016 and performed also in April 2017. In July 2018 he conducted “The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration”, a concert program devoted to the collaboration between the composer and his favourite director.
Pedroni can be heard in many recordings of the great classical repertoire; in 2017, Varèse Sarabande released John Williams: Themes and Transcriptions for Piano, an album featuring Pedroni’s own transcriptions for solo piano of several film themes by John Williams approved by the composer.
His lastest album Cinema Morricone, a 2-disc set produced by Robert Townson for Sony Classical, is a homage to Ennio Morricone, consisting of new original arrangements for piano and flute created by Pedroni for american flutist Sara Andon.
Simone Pedroni Official Website: https://www.simonepedroni.com
Simone Pedroni Official YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/elisamariairene