John Williams conducts own work in ‘Great Performances’

Rick's Reviews

The next “Great Performances” will feature John Williams conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of PBS)

No one has been more responsible for creating the soundtrack of our lives over the past seven decades than composer, conductor and pianist John Williams. His music helped us believe a man could fly in the “Superman” movies and Darth Vader would just be a villain with a breathing problem had Williams not composed such a dramatic theme for him while working on the “Star Wars” franchise.

The man who has won 25 Grammy Awards and five Oscars by creating the memorable scores for music for “Jaws,” the first two “Jurassic Park” movies, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the first three “Harry Potter” films and “Schindler’s List” picks up the baton to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the episodes of “Great Performances: A John Williams Premiere at Tanglewood” airing at 9 p.m. Nov. 12 on Valley PBS.

The concert features virtuoso violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter performing the debut of Williams’ new concerto. The concert also includes performances of Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City,” Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from “The Firebird” and “Starburst” by Jessie Montgomery.

Williams has been a prolific composer over the years creating works that can be identified in only a few notes. But, the creative procedure always has been the same.

“It is a long process. Those two or three note things – or five note things – can be very elusive and hard to find,” Williams says. “I have to tell you there’s rarely a moment where in my experience I have said beforehand, ‘Eureka, this is exactly right; this will work.’

“There’s always a little bit of uncertainty until people can respond in great numbers as to whether or not we have achieved that effect.”

He points to his work in “Close Encounters” as an example of the long composing process. The film features a series of five notes that become the initial way of contacting alien visitors. It is one of the most iconic presentations of five notes in film history.

The script called for five tones but Williams wanted to write seven because that would sound more like a melody. Director Steven Spielberg stuck to his original count and Williams set about trying to put together the right five tones.

Williams put together 300 examples based on five notes before finally telling Spielberg he has exhausted all possibilities. They finally settled on the combination that became part of film history.

“These little signals and simple themes representing characters are things that I have to work on very hard to kind of forge them, remake them, try what eventually seems like simple, inevitable, inescapable,” Williams says. “They are as simple as they are, they are tricky to find.

“When they feel right, they do communicate in a very short time, which is very important in film music. We can feel it. We have had some success.”

He labors more with film projects but his 52 Academy Award nominations has made him the second most-nominated individual behind Walt Disney. He also has a long list of television credits that include the theme music for “NBC Sunday Night Football” and the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.

“Great Performances” was a welcome change for Williams. Instead of creating an entire soundtrack, he composed a concerto for the special. He was particularly excited about working with Mutter to capture what he thinks are her particular idiosyncratic tendencies in what she does.

Williams describes writing the piece as presenting a portrait of the virtuoso violinist. He always tries to capture in his music a piece of the person who will be performing his work.

“Of course, it also gives me freedom from the composition of music for film where there’s constrictions. There are areas of -to put it simply – measurement,” Williams says. “We know how long a piece has to be or how short it needs to be.

“When I am writing for one of the soloists or for an orchestra in general, I am free from all of those very confining, arithmetic requirements of what has to be put into film. So it is an area where I can find freedom to write what I like, in this case, with Anne Sophie Mutter, for someone I like very much.”

It helps that Williams has always had a love for the violin. He explains that a concerto for a violin presents a very specific kind of challenge because it sets up a situation where there are 100 instruments against one. He finds great joy in finding the right balance to solve that musical problem.

Williams has to be careful when he is conducting music that he has composed. He has often found himself thinking in terms of how the work could have been improved. He doesn’t have such a problem when conducting the works of others.

“On the other hand, it is a particular pleasure to conduct one’s own music when you can conduct it in a way that you think you can get an interpretation through others,” Williams says. “There are two kinds of conductors: ones that might disappoint you in their performance of the music and great artists who bring more to one’s music than you thought was there.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.