Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


The Boston Pops Gets a Movie Composer Who Doesn't Chase Fire Engines as Its New Boss

Posted on

The audience cheered wildly as those droll droids from outer space took their bows. C-3PO had just led the orchestra through a few bars from the Star Wars theme, and R2-D2, his squat companion, had beeped a brief cadenza. Then, suddenly, the musicians crashed into The Stars and Stripes Forever and a giant American flag was unfurled above the stage. Great Sousa’s ghost—it was almost as if the spirit of Arthur Fiedler had stormed into Symphony Hall. Yet the tall, bearded man on the podium did not in the least resemble the late white-maned maestro—except in his ability to stir an audience. As the Boston Pops orchestra came to the end of Fiedler’s signature march, which had not been heard in the hall since his death last July, 2,300 spectators rose to cheer. They stayed until conductor John Williams had returned six times.

It was a stunning debut, considering that Williams, 48, had an impossible act to follow. “It’s silly to talk about a replacement for Fiedler,” said a Boston Symphony Orchestra official last summer. “It’s a question of going on from here.” For 50 years the peppery, publicity-conscious Fiedler was the Pops. He made the orchestra—which is the Boston Symphony minus its 12 principal players—into a world-famous music machine with a vast repertoire of classics, light classics and popular songs. “Mr. Pops,” with his occasional outlandish costumes, his TV commercials, even his curmudgeonly impatience with children, endeared himself to generations of Bostonians. In Fiedler’s time Pops concerts were always sold out. Their recordings sold 50 million copies. The television show Evening at Pops was regularly near the top of the PBS ratings. The Pops’ earnings paid about a third of the Boston Symphony’s operating expenses.

The Pops’ eight-month search for Fiedler’s successor was as feverish as the dragnet for Scarlett O’Hara. Candidates included Mitch Miller; Erich Kunzel, conductor of the Cincinnati Pops; John Covelli, director of the Flint, Mich. Symphony; and the Pops’ assistant (now associate) conductor, Harry Ellis Dickson. Williams became the front-runner, and a popular choice among the musicians themselves. When his two-year appointment was announced last January 10 at a BSO rehearsal, orchestra members broke into spontaneous applause.

To a few critics, he seemed a dubious choice. Though his musical credits were impeccable, he was esteemed mainly as a composer of film scores and classical music. He wandered into conducting only because he was appalled at the way other directors recorded his works. He is one of Hollywood’s top music men, with some 60 scores to his credit, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Superman, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. He has amassed 14 Oscar nominations and has won three Oscars, two Golden Globes, two Emmys and eight Grammys. His recording of the Star Wars score has sold more than two million copies.

When it came to leading an orchestra, Williams’ record was thin. He had guest-conducted a half dozen of them, including the Pops last year before Fiedler died, but most of his work with the baton had been in recording studios. That is vastly different from standing in front of an audience, as Williams admits. “In the studio, if I hear a noise, I stop the orchestra. I can redo,” he says. “In a live concert I did in London, something went wrong, and my first instinct was to stop and do another take. But I realized I had to press on. Last year when I first conducted the Pops, people told me I waited too long between numbers. I kept waiting for the din from the audience to die down, but it never did.” Instead Williams taught himself to tune out the babble from the Pops’ cabaret-style tables. Conducting the orchestra, he says, “is like driving a Rolls-Royce for the first time. All that power, subtlety and responsiveness is there for you to do something with.”

By and large, the Pops is enthusiastic about what he has done. “It’s hard to follow anyone like Fiedler, who had become bigger than himself,” says BSO concertmaster Joseph Silver-stein. “But John is different, and that’s his strength. He’s emotionally ready, hungry for this kind of commitment. There’s no L.A. hype about this guy. He’s an efficient conductor with good ears.”

Certainly Williams has never been one to shrink from a challenge, including the grueling production schedules that make film scoring a test of physical stamina. “It’s difficult to write 60 to 90 minutes of music in six to 10 weeks,” he says. “Like writing an opera, it tests your endurance. And there are frustrations, like having to record something in two minutes and 30 seconds on the nose.” Before he begins, he prefers to “walk in blind” to a screening, without reading the film script beforehand. “Anyone who’s read a novel and then seen the film version will understand,” he explains. “When we see other visualizations they are always different, often disappointing. Completely unprepared, I get a better rhythmic response. I can pick up the kinetics better.”

Williams will continue to compose for films, though the demands of his Pops assignment will reduce his output to perhaps one score a year. “It’s important for me and important for the Pops that I keep visible in Hollywood,” he says. Someday he would like to record a sound track with the Pops in Symphony Hall. “Some cynical people say was chosen because I can offer the Pops film work,” he observes. “They don’t understand that the Pops doesn’t need a job. Booking 10 days of the orchestra’s time to do a Star Wars would be nearly impossible. The important thing is that we comfortably and happily make music together.” The Pops has just signed a two-year, seven-album contract with Phonogram International. The first album, Pops in Space, will be recorded at Symphony Hall in June.

Williams comes by his music naturally. His father, John Sr., was a percussionist with the CBS Radio Orchestra and NBC’s Your Hit Parade. Johnny, two younger brothers and a little sister grew up in Flushing, N.Y. surrounded by musicians and talk about music. He vividly remembers the day he was taken to the CBS studio to hear his father perform. “The first sounds of the orchestra, the deafening noises of the brasses, the color of the sound—it was the biggest single turn-on,” he says. “The orchestra became my passion.” Williams took his first piano lesson at 7, and later mastered the trombone, trumpet and clarinet. In 1948 the family moved to Los Angeles, where John Sr. free-lanced for studio orchestras. He and John’s mother, Esther, live there now in retirement; John’s brothers, Jerry and Don, are percussionists, and sister Joan teaches piano.

Throughout his childhood, young John’s absorption in music continued. By the time he graduated from North Hollywood High School in 1950, he was studying orchestration on his own, and playing, arranging and composing for the school band. While at UCLA studying piano and composition, he wrote his first extended piece, a piano sonata. His college career was cut short in 1952 by the draft, but his musical education continued. During a three-year hitch as an airman he played piano and conducted and arranged for an Air Force band in Riverside, Calif. After his discharge he headed for New York and studied at Juilliard under Rosina Lhevinne, the formidable Russian emigrée pedagogue. “I showed her some things I had orchestrated,” he remembers. “She was surprised—not at the quality of what I had done, but that I had done it at all.” On the side, he played jazz piano in nightclubs.

Returning to Los Angeles in 1956, Williams auditioned as a pianist for Columbia and 20th Century-Fox, and wound up playing “for all the greats of the film industry—Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin. I was lucky to find myself on the inside when I was quite young.” Early on, he was asked if he could orchestrate. “With all the temerity of youth,” he recalls, “I said I could.” His first musical arrangements were for Billy Wilder in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. He wrote his first complete score for Columbia’s 1960 film Because They’re Young. He also made six LPs with André Previn and scored TV shows like Kraft Theater and Playhouse 90.

During the 1960s Williams composed for big-budget features like Diamond Head and unmentionables like Gidget Goes to Rome. In 1971 he won an Emmy for a TV version of Jane Eyre and his first Oscar for the screen adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof. He went on to do the music for Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, qualifying himself to score the Apocalypse. By the time he wrote the ominous, surging score for Jaws, Williams was becoming one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood. “His biggest contribution,” Lionel Newman, vice-president for music at 20th Century-Fox, has said, “may have been to make people aware of the importance of music to films.” Added Jaws producer David Brown: “We find out first if we can get Williams for a movie before we assign a writer or look at actors.”

A widower since 1974, when his wife, Barbara, died of a cerebral hemorrhage after 18 years of marriage, Williams still finds her loss difficult to discuss. He will say only, “She is the mother of my children.” Their daughter, Jennifer, 23, is a premed student at the University of Southern California, son Mark, 22, plays drums in a Los Angeles rock band, and Joe, 20, is studying music at Valley College in Los Angeles. Williams himself has settled into a rented house on Beacon Hill in Boston with a Baldwin piano, also rented, and his beautiful dark-haired wife of one week, Samantha Winslow, 35. A successful interior decorator and photographer, Winslow met Williams at a Hollywood recording session five years ago.

When not involved with the Pops, or recording in England with the London Symphony, Williams enjoys playing chamber music with California friends or “bashing a few golf and tennis balls around.” He won’t have time for either in the near future. The Pops ends its regular season on July 20, but will be performing outdoors until August. After that Williams will return to Hollywood and will begin work in December on a score and sound track for Steven Spielberg’s The Raiders. Early in 1982 he will be composing for the second Star Wars sequel, due out in 1983. Somewhere along the line, plans must be made and music commissioned for the BSO’s gala 100th anniversary next year.

Williams exults in his tumultuous schedule. “I’m a bit ahead of myself all the time,” he admits, “and sometimes I think I should slow down. But ‘Ripeness is all,’ Shakespeare said. An apple is great but only at that moment. It’s true of everything, especially music. It’s true of instruments and the people who play them. It’s true of food and sex and everything we do.” Clearly, music is Williams’ pleasure as well as his business. “All I want to do is work,” he says. “If Armageddon came and blew up everything, in a few days someone would pick up a reed, even if only for a war song. The impulse to make music is the greatest fun in life. I guess I’m living my dream. I’m just asking for more of it.”