An astonishing number of people know the film music of John Williams. Just a few of his hit scores are the “Star Wars” trilogy, “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
But there’s a lesser-known side to Williams--the classical one.
He has composed two symphonies and several concertos, including one for violin, which Alexander Treger will play today with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct.
“When writing music away from the film world, I felt I could be more experimental,” Williams said Monday from his studio in Los Angeles. “I felt I could test myself and try not to be daunted by the great masters of the past.”
The impulse for the work came from his deceased wife, Barbara, to whom it is dedicated. She died in 1974.
“She was a great lover of the violin and the violin repertory,” Williams said. “She had urged me to write something for violin and orchestra. Just at the moment of her passing, I sat down and wrote [the beginning of] this piece, not as a memorial to her, but out of a shared interest we had and as something I had wanted to do for many years before that.”
The work falls into the traditional three-movement form. Williams describes it as “late-romantic cum vaguely post-serial atonalism.
“But it’s really a romantic and lyrical piece. The violin expresses itself in melody and in a long canticle [singing] line, which is what the instrument does best.”
Still, he wanted to write a typical concerto display piece, so he packed in challenges for the soloist.
“It’s enormously difficult technically,” he said. “I probably would get more performances of it if it weren’t so hard.”
Treger knows all about the difficulties. He gave the Los Angeles premiere of the work in 1983 with the Philharmonic led by Williams. (The world premiere was given by Mark Peskanov with the St. Louis Symphony led by Leonard Slatkin in 1981.) Since then, he has played it with the San Francisco, Dallas and Houston orchestras.
“John’s idea was to show the violin as a virtuoso instrument, which he achieved with great success--and made me work very hard,” Treger said in a phone interview this week. “Each time I came back to the score, I saw new things in it. This morning I was looking at it again and thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of that phrasing before?’ ”
Beyond that, however, Williams “brings in a lot of the history of violin concertos,” Treger said. “There is the cadenza, which obviously is present in any romantic concerto. There is also a dialogue with the flute and some other instruments, which brings it more toward the baroque type of concerto, where the violin is part of an ensemble. A lot of elements are combined.”
Treger feels critical acceptance of Williams’ classical music is only a matter of time.
“It will be taken seriously,” he said. “Obviously, John is wonderful in the film industry. All of his scores. Listening to this concerto, you’ll realize we should have more of him in the concert world.”
Williams worked on the score from 1974 until 1976.
“It was on my piano,” he said.” I kept leaving it [for other projects] and coming back to it. I’m kind of a stonemason in that I have to keep chipping away at it, refining it, writing and rewriting until finally it gets to a point where--well the cliche is, a work of art is never finished; it’s just abandoned.
“But each time we’ve done it,” he continued, “I’ve done a little adjustment in the orchestration. Very little rewrite in the solo part. But I’m that kind of composer that process never stops for. I always hear things I feel I can improve.”
Williams is aware of the great divide between the film and the concert worlds, but he believes that is changing.
“The two areas of activity are so vastly different, as are the requirements of the composer, both technically and temperamentally,” he said. “You haven’t seen film composers become successful as concert composers. The reverse is also true.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, serious conservatory students wouldn’t deign to even aspire to write for film. That’s not true any more. I’ve met many young composers--very very gifted ones--who are very interested in film. It really is the popular art medium in our era.”
He also knows that anything he writes will be judged in comparison with the works of the great composers of the past.
“A couple of years ago, I wrote a concerto for [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma that was commissioned by the Boston Symphony,” Williams said. “I kept saying to him, ‘It’s so difficult, given the kind of shoulders we all stand on--Mozart and Beethoven--to have the temerity to even pick up a pencil and put it to paper.
“Yo-Yo, bless him, said, ‘We can’t be daunted and humbled. We need to approach music in terms of seeing it as an opportunity to express our joy and to have fun with it. We must live with with music in a joyful, pleasurable way which can allow us to make our own humble contributions and not inhibit us.’ ”
* Alexander Treger will be the soloist in John Williams’ Violin Concerto, with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at 8 p.m. today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The program, sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, also includes works by Beethoven and Carl Nielsen. $15 to $60. (714) 556-2787.