A Standing Engagement
“I went to school here,” says a slightly facetious John Williams, backstage in his dressing room at the Hollywood Bowl on a recent rehearsal day.
Wearing a white cotton shirt and tan slacks, he appears a good deal less formal than his audience is accustomed to. It’s hot and hazy outside, and his wispy white hair is a bit mussed after an hour or so of running down that evening’s numbers with the 100-plus musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Williams returns to the Bowl this weekend, conducting the Philharmonic in a program of light classics Friday and Saturday nights with guest artist Natalie Cole.
For the five-time Oscar-winning composer, whose most recent work is the score for longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed “Saving Private Ryan,” it marks an anniversary of sorts. Twenty years ago last week--on July 28 and 29, 1978--he conducted his first concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.
Williams, now 66, reflected on his long history with L.A.'s great outdoor music venue. His “schooling” at the Bowl began in the late 1950s, before he became a composer. A studio pianist, he performed regularly on other writers’ scores (mostly at Columbia and 20th Century Fox), which led to occasional calls to play for Bowl concerts.
“I seem to have been, without having any official status, a kind of frequently used extra player, mostly for the light-music weekend shows,” he recalled. “I would play for conductors like John Green or Andre Previn; I remember playing with Felix Slatkin.”
As a composer for TV and film in the 1960s, Williams regularly conducted studio ensembles, and as he rose to prominence in the early ‘70s, he began to conduct occasionally in public (notably for the Oscars in 1973 and with London’s Royal Philharmonic in 1976). But, he said, “I certainly didn’t regard myself as a public, performing conductor.”
That changed when “Star Wars,” accompanied by Williams’ lavish symphonic score, soared into movie history in the summer of 1977. Philharmonic general manager Ernest Fleischmann tried to coax Williams into conducting his “Star Wars” music as part of a music-and-laser show that fall.
Recalled Williams: “I just said to Ernest, ‘You have one of the world’s great conductors in Zubin Mehta. It would be better if he did it, and I’ll come as a guest.’ ”
Mehta conducted the “Star Wars” extravaganza to a wildly enthusiastic Bowl audience in November 1977. “Ernest kept at me all year, saying, ‘You must come and conduct at the Bowl,’ ” Williams said. “So finally in ’78 I went in and conducted a weekend, or possibly two.”
As it happened, legendary Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler had been scheduled to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a “Pops at the Bowl” weekend, but illness prevented him from doing so.
“Ernest called me to do those concerts,” Williams said, “mostly, I thought, because all of the practicing conductors would have been booked during the busy summer season. I was working in the studios, and he assumed, rightly, that I would have been free on those weekends. So I had a couple of dramatic substitutions there for Arthur Fiedler a year or two before I had any connection at all with Boston.” He admits, however, to having “very little” memory of the experience.
Less than a year and a half later, he was named to succeed Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops, a post he held for 14 years.
Williams’ high profile as the Oscar-winning composer of such landmark scores as “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Schindler’s List,” coupled with his frequent television exposure on PBS’ “Evening at Pops,” have made him the most recognized composer of our time.
Yet he comes back every year to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl. The reasons, he says, are both personal and professional.
“Going before the public occasionally in the summer, such as at the Hollywood Bowl, was for me a kind of completion of a circle, or attainment of a kind of balance from what is a very private activity, working in a monk-like atmosphere at the studio. In a room that has to be very quiet and away from people to do the composing work, to the exact, extrovert-opposite end of the musical experience, a live performance with a live audience.
“A lot of composers who are part-time conductors also feel that their composing activity is reinvigorated by having conducted. I share that feeling,” he added. “I think any composer who can perform--pianist, violinist, conductor and so on--is in touch with the performance aspect of music when you put it on paper, making it to be user-friendly.
“The experience of interacting with an orchestra, with the pragmatic aspects of timing, acoustics, bowing, articulation, all the things that a conductor is concerned with, present themselves at the writing table in a way that they don’t if you’re not a performer.”
As for the Bowl itself, Williams called it “one of the points of identification of Los Angeles. We don’t have the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument or the World Trade Center. We have the Bowl, a cultural treasure for the community.”
Pressed for special memories over two decades of conducting there, Williams cited Itzhak Perlman’s 1994 performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, Yo-Yo Ma’s 1995 performance of the Elgar cello concerto and June’s gala honoring Fleischmann, at which soprano Kathleen Battle performed. “Just so many fabulous music-making nights that have made it really a big part of my life.”
Williams (who, despite his international schedule, still calls L.A. home) clearly enjoys conducting in the famed outdoor musical settings of America, including the Bowl, Ravinia in Northern Illinois, Blossom Center in Ohio, Wolf Trap in Washington and--a special favorite--Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where Williams has spent his last 19 summers. He’s flying back from Tanglewood to conduct this weekend, then will return there and remain until early September.
“The venues, the orchestras that play in them and the public that goes to them are a very important part of our national musical life,” he said. “Tanglewood is as important as Symphony Hall in Boston. You could argue that the Hollywood Bowl is as important to the musical life of this community, in its special way, as the Chandler Pavilion is. It’s an inseparable part of the larger practice of making music in our country.”
And, no, Williams isn’t bothered by the sounds of picnickers, traffic and passing airplanes. He noted that, for Pops concerts, Boston’s Symphony Hall is filled with people at tables drinking wine and eating dinner.
“If you drop a pin at the back of Symphony Hall, you’ll hear it,” he pointed out. “Whatever the distractions of the public behind you, you have to soldier on and complete the performance. It actually took me a while to get used to that. I was very distracted by the noise. After a few seasons I learned not to be so conscious of what was happening behind me.
“One doesn’t have that experience at the Bowl. The audience is a lot farther away from you. As a matter of fact, it sometimes feels hard to make personal contact because they’re not right there beneath the proscenium where you can see them, talk to them and deliver the musical message, as it were.
“So if you conduct, as I have, probably 1,000 concerts in Symphony Hall in Boston, with all the activity that goes on within it, compared to that, the Hollywood Bowl is a model of quietude.”
The Los Angeles Philharmonic with John Williams conducting and vocalist Natalie Cole. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, (323) 850-2000. 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $3 to $78.