A Change of Emphasis : John Williams’ decision to reorder his artistic life frees him to spend more time composing serious works

<i> Peter Catalano is a free-lance writer based in Boston</i>

It was during one of those interminable cross-country flights he takes a dozen times a year that John Williams decided to reorder his artistic life. So in December, Williams surprised just about everyone when he announced his resignation as conductor of the Boston Pops, effective Jan. 1, 1994. Vexing questions of his succession were quickly raised, along with thorny issues of the PBS contract for “Evening at Pops,” recording obligations and tours, all of which sent shock waves through Boston, Hollywood and New York.

Speaking from the summer home of the Boston Symphony just days before commencing a 10-city road trip with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra--a tour that culminates in Los Angeles with a concert at Hollywood Bowl next Sunday--Williams gave every indication that his resignation will be orderly and sensitively planned. In fact, Williams will maintain close ties with Boston and at Tanglewood. All the elements of his current activities will remain; the only change will be a shift in emphasis.

“I’ve reached one of those levels in life,” he says, “when you have a birthday with zeros in it. In this particular case it’s the 60th for me. By the time I reach my retirement with the Pops I will have conducted them for 14 years, which is long by most standards of conductors of American orchestras.


“I want to spend less time traveling and devote as much time as I can to doing what I think of as my first function, and that is composing. I want to continue work in the film area, but I would also like, perhaps, to bring that back a little in terms of commitment and spend more time doing a more thoughtful writing than I’ve had the opportunity to do, since most of my music has been in the commercial field of film scoring.”

Clearly the challenge of writing sophisticated concert music has become foremost in Williams’ mind. This next phase will be inaugurated in March when he is due to deliver a bassoon concerto to the New York Philharmonic. It’s a five-movement piece; four movements have been written, and the last is expected at the end of this year. At this point Williams isn’t working on any other compositions of this kind until he completes his obligations to the Pops and to Hollywood.

It’s no wonder he’s had no time to compose for the concert hall. Williams’ current workload seems staggering. Ticking off a list of films he will be scoring, he mentions, “In the next 18 months I’ve got three projects that I’m contracted to do. The first one I’ll start when the tour ends, and that will be ‘Home Alone II’ for Christmas. And then next year I’ll have two that I’m doing for Spielberg. One is ‘Jurassic Park,’ based on the Michael Crichton novel, and then in the fall of ‘93, Spielberg and I will do ‘Schindler’s List,’ which is a wonderful story of Holocaust survivors in Poland.”

Unlike the case with most departing maestros, Williams and the Boston Symphony Orchestra executives are intent on finding him a sustainable role for continuing collaboration. It all starts with the romance between him and the Pops orchestra, which has become very responsive to his direction after some turbulence in 1985.

He positively beams when he says: “I have a wonderful relationship with both orchestras, the Boston Pops and the Esplanade Orchestra (which consists of free-lancers who perform when the parent orchestra is at Tanglewood). I would continue with the Pops as a guest, help in fund-raising and just be a part of the orchestra family, which I want to continue. Then in 1994 we can announce a conductor who can take over the body of the workload with the Pops.”

Williams is inclined to be an active part of the transition from leader to emeritus, and he seems to be excited to participate in the process.


“I believe in constructive change,” he muses, “and I think it’s good for our orchestras and organizations to bring in new energy, new repertoire ideas and try and rejuvenate the entire process. I want to be part of that and work with whoever succeeds me.”

In that regard he brings up the name of Leonard Bernstein and his relationship with the New York Philharmonic as a model career move. Years after he resigned as artistic director of the Philharmonic, Bernstein continued to travel, record and conduct as a laureate. Also in Williams’ mind, Bernstein’s name, like that of Serge Koussevitzky, brings up another association about which Williams rhapsodizes.

“There’s a spiritual aspect to Tanglewood that Koussevitsky, and more recently, Bernstein, have put here that may sound naive,” he says, “but it’s real for me and for many of us. This year I’m called ‘artist in residence,’ which is a very flattering thing. I’m not here formally as a teacher, but I do speak to students, conduct the student orchestra from time to time when we do our Pops concerts out here, and the rest of the time I’m here imbibing this wonderful atmosphere, which is giving me, I’m sure, more than I’m giving it.”

His laureate activities with the Pops will probably include continued recording. Williams seems confident that the current contract with Sony Classical, which extends right up to 1994, will be renewed with an automatic option clause. There are some hitches, however. Certainly the role of his successor in any recording contract would be an issue, though, of course, the Boston Symphony has multiple recording contracts featuring different conductors with various labels. However, this hasn’t been the case with the Pops, which by tradition only records with its conductor.

There is also the intriguing possibility that John Mauceri, who directs the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, could wind up in Boston. The Boston Globe, in particular, has been touting Mauceri as a natural successor to Williams. Mauceri’s agent has said only that his client has not been approached. Mauceri didn’t dampen those prospects when he led the Esplanade Orchestra before a national television audience on the Fourth of July, with a rousing program that included everything from Wagner to Americana.

But if he is crowned the new conductor of the Pops, Mauceri would wind up competing against himself on CD. His Hollywood Bowl Orchestra was founded, in part, to replace Williams and the Pops when the Pops jumped labels from Philips to Sony Classical three years ago. No one is sure right now how this could be untangled, which may be a strike against Mauceri. There is also the matter of Mauceri’s contract with both the Bowl Orchestra and Philips.


For his part Williams says he “would not do anything that would obstruct, in any way, the plans or the opportunities available to my successor. That would be my first consideration.”

At the same time, Williams will continue his artistic ties with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, by implication, its spinoff, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. In fact, Williams is slated to conduct the Philharmonic at the Bowl in September. Since it is anticipated that the Bowl Orchestra will expand its summer dates while the Philharmonic pursues other summer projects, it seems inevitable that Williams will have a chance to lead the Bowl Orchestra. But so far he hasn’t even heard it play.

The prospect of conducting the orchestra is very tempting, he says, since he will be among friends. Most of the free-lancers in the Bowl Orchestra perform for Williams’ film scores.

But for now, Williams is relishing the peace of summer in Tanglewood and the prospect of using a pencil more than a baton.

“Composing here is exactly what I want to do,” he says. “To use this atmosphere to imbibe the spirit of what has been here and what’s going to be here, and just sense that with certainty.”