Legendary Musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Reunite to Celebrate John Williams
Hosted and Produced by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden
The Legacy of John Williams is honoured to present BOSTON CALLING, a new special video production celebrating one of the seminal musical collaborations in the career of John Williams: the association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. In the year of Maestro’s 90th Birthday, a few of the legendary BSO and Boston Pops musicians reunite for the first time in years to celebrate John Williams and reminisce about their years performing under him in dozens of live performances and recordings: former BSO & Boston Pops Principal Harp Ann Hobson Pilot, former BSO Associate Principal Trumpet / Boston Pops Principal Trumpet Tim Morrison, BSO Associate Principal Horn / Boston Pops Principal Horn Richard “Gus” Sebring and BSO Assistant Principal Oboe / Boston Pops Principal Oboe Keisuke Wakao. In addition to this phenomenal panel of musicians, the discussion is enriched by the presence of film music scholar Emilio Audissino (author of the seminal book The Film Music of John Williams, University of Wisconsin Press).
The discussion puts a spotlight on John Williams’ tenure as Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993 through recollections of some of the historic performances and recordings (including albums from both the Philips Classics and the Sony Classical years) and reflecting on how Williams picked up Arthur Fiedler’s legacy while refreshing the orchestra’s repertoire. Some of the musicians’ special moments as soloists are featured, illuminating on how much their contribution also inspired the composer to write concert pieces specifically for them. The recording of the scores of two Steven Spielberg’s masterpieces, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, is also discussed.
JOHN WILLIAMS AND THE BSO: A HISTORY IN THE MAKING
by Maurizio Caschetto
In addition to being one of the most celebrated and talented composers of our times, Maestro John Williams has gained an extraordinary reputation over the last four decades as a conductor, not just limited to studio recordings for his own film music, but as a full-range classical conductor, mainly thanks to his 40+ years collaboration with one of the world’s most distinguished and revered classical musical institutions: the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The association with the esteemed group is one of the key aspects to understand the magnitude of John Williams’ personality, as it helped to shape and develop further his own unique talent as an artist in its broadest sense.
John Williams’ artistic relationship with the BSO and its offshoot orchestra, the Boston Pops, was born almost out of an accidental circumstance. In July 1978, the composer was called by Ernest Fleischmann (the then-general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) to conduct for two nights at the Hollywood Bowl, substituting at the last minute an ailing Arthur Fiedler (Boston Pops’ Principal Conductor) on his planned concerts with the LA Phil. It was quite a surprise for Williams himself: despite being a very respected and revered studio conductor, he only rarely conducted in public before then, but nevertheless accepted the challenge. The program featured pieces from the classical repertoire (Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture, an excerpt of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.3, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia On Greensleeves) and also some selections from Williams’ own film scores, including Jaws and Star Wars. The worldwide success of those two blockbuster scores did put John Williams’ name firmly on the map as a true superstar among film composers, reinvigorating the success of the classic symphonic score among the general audience and imprinting a whole generation of listeners and moviegoers with the fascination for the sound of the orchestra.
In May 1979, John Williams was officially invited at Boston’s Symphony Hall to guest-conduct the Boston Pops Orchestra in a program that featured both classical pieces and his own film music (selections from Star Wars, Superman and an excerpt of his Academy Award-winning adaptation score of Fiddler on the Roof). It was around this time that Williams was asked by Arthur Fiedler to compose a march for the orchestra, a request that the composer couldn’t fulfill at that moment because of previous film commitments; Williams promised to the Boston Pops’ conductor that he would do as soon as he could find a time in his schedule.
Arthur Fiedler was starting to become very ill at that moment and, in July 1979, he died. He led the Boston Pops for 50 continuous seasons (he was appointed Principal Conductor in 1930, after being one of the violin players in the orchestra), bringing the orchestra to an unprecedented fame and success and leading the ensemble into the modern age of recording (sold in million copies by the RCA Victor label) and subsequently also televised performances for the series Evening at Pops. Under Fiedler’s tenure, the Pops became the world’s most famous “light classical” ensemble, with a repertoire that included popular Viennese waltzes, John Philip Sousa’s stirring marches, excerpts from famous Russian ballets and show tunes from the latest Broadway and Hollywood sensations, among many other things. In Fiedler’s mind, the mission of the Boston Pops was bringing a wider audience to enjoy classical concerts, which he certainly did thanks to his own flamboyant personality as a public figure, and also with the help of the informal atmosphere of these performances, in which the traditional seating of the Symphony Hall is substituted by café-styled chairs and tables, with chance also of having food and drinks served during the concert.
After Arthur Fiedler’s death, discussions among the orchestra’s artistic committee began to choose a new principal conductor, a task that was deemed as highly difficult given the predecessor’s fame and reputation. After several meetings, discussions and a voting procedure among the committee, a surprising verdict was revealed: John Williams was chosen as the 19th Principal Conductor / Music Director of the Boston Pops. The choice left the composer himself really astonished and flattered:
BSO Manager Tom Morris came to London, where I was working on The Empire Strikes Back, and asked me if I’d like to be director of the Pops. It was the most flattering thing one could think of—to be offered the directorship of an American institution as venerable, prominent, and successful as the Pops. So naturally, I found it hard to resist, though I didn’t agree immediately. I told Tom Morris that I had very little experience conducting in public. He said, “I think you can do it, and André Previn has convince d us you can do it, and the players committee has elected you as the person of their choice.” So I promised to think about it. I spoke to my wife and my friends, to André Previn. and they all said, “You really should do this. It’s a very important thing because, although it couldn’t be more different than Holl ywood, it’s bound to enrich your life.” So with some trepidation and a lot of excitement, I rang him up and said, “I’ll try it.”
At a moment of his career where he was internationally lauded for the success of his film scores, Williams decided to pose himself a different kind of challenge, something that would have helped him transitioning onto the next phase of his musical life.
It couldn’t have been a happier choice for me. In particular, it accomplished for me my basic hope of serving as a kind of reinvigoration from the cloistered atmosphere of working in a Hollywood studio, where you work alone in a room and the music sits lifelessly on the page. In Boston, one had a live orchestra, with an audience applauding, cheering, or booing. I find that moment of bringing the music to life in a live performance—an experience that doesn’t exist in the world of recording—enormously invigorating and refreshing.
Williams debuted as the Boston Pops’ music director on January 22, 1980 with a performance at the Carnegie Hall in New York City, featuring a typical Pops’ three-act program that included Gabriel Faurè’s “Pavane” and Camille Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto (with Pops’ concertmaster Emanuel Borok), and also his own film music (selections from Star Wars, Superman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind among others). “The evening tested the Pops’ new conductor in three ways, as a program builder, a composer, and a conductor – and he passed all three tests with flying colors,” wrote Boston Globe’s music critic Richard Dyer.
The following April, it was the moment to face the Boston audience for the Opening Night of the Pops 95th Season at the Symphony Hall. Included in the program were a piece by William Walton (“Spitfire Prelude and Fugue”) and two movements from Henryk Wieniawski’s famous Violin Concerto (performed by the great Isaac Stern) among other things. Several concert suites of Williams’ own film scores were performed as well: an overture from The Cowboys (the 1972 western starring John Wayne), the world premiere of a 20-minute suite for narrator and orchestra adapted from the film score of the 1969 film The Reivers (narrated by actor Burgess Meredith) and two themes from his then-upcoming film score The Empire Strikes Back (“Yoda’s Theme” and “The Imperial March”). The concert was also recorded and later broadcasted on PBS as part of the Evening at Pops series.
As a special surprise for the Boston audience, the program announced that “intergalactic visitors may be expected to join the festivities”—they were none other than the beloved Star Wars droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who appeared on the stage besides the conductor and took the baton from him for a moment to conduct the orchestra in an excerpt of the Star Wars main title theme. The audience loved the surprise and it was certainly a sign of what they could expect from that moment onward with John Williams at helm of the Boston Pops. Nevertheless, the newly-appointed Pops conductor was very careful to avoid putting the spotlight too much on himself, but instead saw this opportunity as a chance for personal growth and development.
So the career of John Williams as a classical conductor ignited and a new extraordinary phase of his musical life began. Williams stayed as the Pops’ music director for fourteen seasons, from 1980 to 1993, accompanying the Pops toward a new chapter in the life of the orchestra. As it would be expected from a musician of his caliber, John Williams took very seriously the post as principal conductor in Boston. One of the great challenges he faced was to balance his life as a composer in Hollywood, which continued at a regular pace, and the new activity as the music director of the Boston Pops, planning live performances, recordings and activities. While the work as film composer still took a lot of his working time, having now the responsabilty of being a full-time conductor added a new dimension to Williams’ life. Following the footsteps of Arthur Fiedler, who in fifty years brought the Pops up to a real celebrity status among the general audience that gave them the name of “America’s Orchestra”, was certainly a great commitment, but another challenge was to bring the ensemble onto a new phase, modernizing its approach to the repertoire without distorting its essence.
John Williams couldn’t be more different than Fiedler in terms of personality and attitude, but he understood immediately the core mission of the orchestra and has been truly exceptional in keeping alive the Boston Pops’ tradition while at the same time refreshing its repertoire and bringing a much more varied, nuanced and refined personality. Gone were many of the Pops’ standard arrangements in favour of newly-written orchestrations of Broadway tunes, jazz standards and selections from the Great American Songbook, often penned by such talented arrangers and Williams’ friends as Herbert Spencer, Alexander Courage, Angela Morley, Sid Ramin, Eddie Karam, Sammy Nestico, Jonathan Tunick, and sometimes also by Williams himself. It was a true overhaul that also included commissioning new pieces to esteemed concert composers including Peter Maxwell Davies, John Corigliano and William Kraft.
The “showbiz” nature of the Boston Pops got to new and unexpected heights during John Williams’ tenure, bringing an even broader fame and recognition thanks to the broadcast of many performances on PBS for the series Evening At Pops, which helped making the conductor a familiar face in many household across across the United States. The Evening at Pops program also offered him a great platform to invite top musicians and performers to join the orchestra on stage, from great classical soloists to redoubtable jazz legends and many popstars. The list of performers who appeared at Symphony Hall between 1980 and 1993 with John Williams in nothing short of spectacular: Sammy Davis jr., Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Perry Como, James Taylor, John Denver, George Benson, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Marsalis, Sarah Vaughan, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Kathleen Battle, Sarah Chang, just to name a very few.
John Williams and the Pops also toured across the country for many performances, including a memorable event in 1986 for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York City (for which the composer wrote the stirring “Liberty Fanfare”). But their success wasn’t limited to the US: in late 1980s and early ’90s, Williams and the Pops toured in Japan several times, a memory which the composer still refer to as one of his fondest ones during his tenure.
Perhaps above all, John Williams took the chance to bring more film music on the concert stage and give the repertoire a new dignity with regular performances of his own brilliant film compositions, but also spotlighting some of the great Hollywood composers by including pieces of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann among others. Williams also experimented something that would become a standard practice, i.e. performing film music in perfect sync with film excerpts, including complicated action sequences like the barrel chase from Jaws or the opening sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, helping the audience understanding and appreciating much more the craft behind the making of a film score. As historian and writer Emilio Audissino noted in his book Film Music In Concert: The Pioneering Role of the Boston Pops Orchestra (Cambridge University, 2022), if film music is now considered as valuable as the great classical repertoire to be performed by the world’s most prestigious orchestras, it’s in large part a merit of John Williams and the Boston Pops. With his usual modesty, the composer himself said in 2000:
Since I was associated with films, there may have been some expectation that I would do more film music than others and probably I did. For a long time. when we were making programs, I deliberately didn’t play Star Wars, for example. It got to the point where I would go to Chicago and conduct and people would say, ‘Why don’t you play E.T. or Star Wars? It’s what we came to hear.’ I felt that, in a way, I was between a rock and hard place. If I played too much film music, especially my own film music, I could be criticized. But if I didn’t, the audience might complain that their expectations weren’t fulfilled. So It became a matter of making a menu, and balancing the material. I think now all the orchestras are playing more film music, especially at the American summer festivals-the Hollywood Bowl, Blossom, Ravinia, and elsewhere.
A key element of Williams’ tenure of the Boston Pops was also a renewed sense of discipline and more focused musicmaking demanded from the players of the orchestra. Arthur Fiedler was a beloved figure by the audience, but he often clashed with some of the orchestra musicians, especially those of the older generation who had issues performing what was considered “lowbrow” repertoire. The ensemble inherited by John Williams in 1980 still had some of that mentality, but one of his stroke of genius was to understand that he could bring the musicians to his side by being a completely different guide than Fiedler was. Williams brought some his studio expertise into the concert hall, laser-focusing on the task at hand and demanding from the musicians a sense of respect to what they were asked to play, always reminding that they were part of the BSO’s heritage. In addition to a new library of arrangements, the personnel was slowly renewed with musicians of a younger generation who understood better the repertoire and could immediately “swing” with the conductor. Williams himself reflected on how much the orchestra changed during his tenure:
Many of the earlier musicians were European-born and -trained and came from different traditions, so when Mr. Fiedler would play some swing music, it was great, because it was a symphony orchestra letting its hair down so to speak, and having fun with it . Most of the new members are young people who have been trained in American conservatories, which means that they know something about jazz and pop music and have developed a great breadth of stylistic skill and adaptability. By 1990, the orchestra cou ld play popular music very well, accurately and idiomatically. They really did swing and enjoyed it because they had grown up with it. I just think that the orchestra got better and better.
A sense of renewed enthusiasm and vigour was certainly palpable not just during the live performances, but also in the many recordings that Williams and the Pops did throughout the years, first for Philips Classics (from 1980 to 1990, recently reissued by Decca in a handsome boxset) and later for the Sony Classical label. In those albums, the orchestra’s sound become more lush and resplendant as the years go by (amplified by the marvelous acoustics of Boston’s Symphony Hall, magnificently captured by engineers John McClure and Shawn Murphy), arriving at points of sublime playing as heard in such terrific recordings as Pops Britannia (1988), The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration (1990) Night and Day: John Williams and the Boston Pops Celebrate Sinatra (1993), Unforgettable (1993).
The personality and talent of several of the orchestra members, especially those in principal chairs like Tim Morrison (trumpet), Gus Sebring (horn), Keisuke Wakao (oboe), Ann Hobson Pilot (harp), Bob Winter (piano), Martha Babcock (cello), Leone Buyse (flute) stepped up the game for Williams, who immediately started to compose new pieces especially for the orchestra, at first mostly circumstance pieces, overtures and marches (“Pops On The March”, “Jubilee 350”, “Esplanade Overture”), and then moved to more ambitious concert works like the Tuba Concerto composed in 1985 for the Boston Pops’ 100th Season and performed by Principal Tuba Chester Schmitz. This work initiated a great tradition of concerti and concertante-like compositions written with some of the Boston Symphony/Boston Pops musicians in mind as the dedicatee soloists. At the same time, Williams often premiered concertized versions of his most recent film works during the various Pops season, evaluating even more the importance of the performance aspect of his own music to the point he considers the experience an immense learning ground for his own writing:
The opportunity to work with one of the great orchestras of the world certainly must have had an impact on my composing. I don’t know if it’s made me a better composer but I can tell you certainly that I’ve learned an enormous amount about myself and about music, especially about the mechanical aspects of orchestration and performance practices in terms of styles, periods, mannerisms, from bowing to articulation to harmonic manipulation and contrapuntal practices. This is all beyond anything that one can learn only doing one’s own music.
Williams stepped down as Boston Pops’ music director in 1993 to dedicate more time to writing film scores and concert music, but his ties with Boston became even stronger. In August, he conducted his first full symphonic concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, in a program featuring Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with world-renowned soloist Yo-Yo Ma.
In 1994, Keith Lockhart was appointed as the 20th music director of the Boston Pops, while Williams was named Pops Conductor Laureate, thus becoming a permanent member of the BSO family. In the same year, he wrote a Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma that was premiered at Tanglewood for the opening of the Seiji Ozawa Hall. During the mid-1990s, Williams also appeared as piano soloist a few times both in Tanglewood and at Symphony Hall conducted by Seiji Ozawa.
Since becoming Conductor Laureate, Williams has been an annual guest to the Boston Pops Spring Season, usually conducting a handful of film music concerts at Symphony Hall (sometimes also sharing the podium with Lockhart), and also appearing regularly at the Tanglewood Music Festival, conducting the Pops in the beloved “Tanglewood On Parade” night and in another of the festival’s biggest events and crowd-favourites, the “John Williams’ Film Night at Tanglewood”, during which it’s not rare to spot Hollywood celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in the audience.
Boston was also the home of two seminal film projects that John Williams did for Steven Spielberg: the Academy Award-winning score for Schindler’s List (1993, featuring violin solos by Itzhak Perlman) and the music for Saving Private Ryan (1998, featuring horn solos by Gus Sebring, trumpet duos for Tim Morrison and Thomas Rolfs, and a large piece for choir performed by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus).
As the years went on, John Williams became a real fixture of the Boston musical scene, conducting the BSO and the Pops, visiting Tanglewood and being part of what he considers a true family. In the last two decades, the bond became even stronger and more profound, especially for his work as a composer of music for the concert stage. In 2000, Williams conducted the BSO in the world premiere of “TreeSong” for violin and orchestra (written for Gil Shaham and inspired by a beautiful Sequoia tree in the Boston Public Gardens); in 2007, he composed a Duo Concertante for Violin and Viola dedicated to Michael Zaretsky (viola) and Victor Romanul (violin), both members of the Boston Symphony, who premiered the piece at Tanglewood; in 2009, Williams penned a Harp Concerto for Ann Hobson Pilot (“On Willows and Birches”, premiered at Symphony Hall with the BSO conducted by James Levine); and in 2010, the composer wrote two concerti for key members of the Boston Pops: a Viola Concerto for Principal Viola Cathy Basrak and an Oboe Concerto for Principal Oboe Keisuke Wakao.
The following decade also brought new major concert works: in 2017, Williams wrote “Markings”, a piece for world-acclaimed soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter, which she debuted with the BSO at Tanglewood (conducted by Andris Nelsons), igniting a fruitful and inspired collaboration with the German violinist; in 2018, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and BSO Principal Harp Jessica Zhou were the featured soloist of “Highwood’s Ghost: An Encounter for Cello, Harp and Orchestra”, a fascinating composition written for the celebrations of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial; Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter returned to Tanglewood in 2019 to premiere a set of violin arrangements of film themes (penned for the Deutsche Grammophon-released recording Across The Stars), with the composer conducting the Boston Pops; and in 2021, Williams conducted the Boston Symphony and Anne-Sophie Mutter again at Tanglewood in the world premiere of his Violin Concerto No.2, composed especially for her.
The long association between John Williams and the family of the Boston Symphony Orchestra continues and renews itself still today. Next August, the composer will be tributed at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed in a special 90th Birthday concert with both the BSO and the Boston Pops, plus many of his beloved musicians friends including Yo-Yo Ma, percussionist Martin Grubinger and singer James Taylor.
During the 40+ years association with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, John Williams became a living legend. The composer has always been ready to acknowledge the contribution that the musicians themselves brought to his work both as composer and as conductor, a respect and admiration that has always been mutual, as this talk with some of the orchestra’s legendary musicians demonstrates. This is another fundamental aspect of the immense legacy that John Williams is leaving to all of us and an unsurpassed sign of his greatness as one of the most generous musical citizens of the world.
Quotes of John Williams taken from the interview with Jon Burlingame appearing in “Boston Pops: America’s Orchestra” (2000)
Special Thanks to Emilio Audissino and Miguel Andrade
The Legacy of John Williams presents
An Online Video Event
BOSTON CALLING: Legendary Musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Reunite to Celebrate John Williams
With Special Guests
ANN HOBSON PILOT
Featuring EMILIO AUDISSINO
Hosted and Produced by Maurizio Caschetto and Tim Burden
Video Editing and Post-Production by Maurizio Caschetto
Poster Art and Graphic Design by Miguel Andrade