Twenty years ago I sat in a Disneyland amphitheater as a member of the Southern California Youth Symphony. Playing second trumpet doesn’t typically afford inspiring solos nor dramatic musical interludes. This performance was different. We were performing music by John Williams. As an uncooperative student of classical music, two instruments, and neighborhood beat downs, playing such popular music as Star Wars, Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark was geek-squad equivalents of dunking a basketball, kissing a cheerleader or owning a car.
John Williams is one of the most prolific composers that you don’t know you know. The two notes from the theme song of Jaws that you sing over and over at a pool party are only the start of John Williams’ penetration into the musical fabric of contemporary culture.
With 45 Academy Award nominations, Williams is the second most nominated individual after Walt Disney. He has won 5 times.
Williams scored more than 80 films during the past 40 years, in fact, some of the biggest in history. Goodbye Mr. Chips, Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter series, E.T., and Superman represent only a fraction of his work.
On the 29th of August I attended the John Williams: A Hollywood Legend performance at the Hollywood Bowl. As I walked the two blocks up from Hollywood Blvd to the venue I half expected to see a Star Trek convention hodge-podge of costumed wookies and storm troopers. What I found was hundreds of people munching on picnic basket cheese, wine and chocolate lounging in summer linens and sport coats. Concessions sold pasta, finger foods, and wine by the bottle.
The concert opened with several familiar Olympic themes that Williams had written since the 1984 Olympics, a fitting tribute considering the recent conclusion of the Beijing Games. Crowds roared as the music bridged to the theme from Star Wars. Hundreds of light sabers waved in the Hollywood darkness as segments of the movie flashed over the monstrous big screens at the Bowl. Musical excerpts from Close Encounters, “Flight to Neverland” (Hook) and finally three pieces from Indiana Jones finished the 1st half of the concert. A tribute to composer Stanley Donen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Always Fair Weather, Anchors Aweigh, Singing in the Rain) gave concert goers the opportunity to listen to two great composer’s dialogue on stage about their own creative processes and each gave historical context to their respective movies. Finally a medley of excerpts from Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders and E.T. brought the Hollywood Bowl to its collective feet.
Watching John Williams conduct is akin to watching a great painter paint. Having waved the baton for the better part of 50 years, the dramatic flourish with which he performs belies the precision and dedication that has defined countless pieces and performances.
What is clear is that his musical greatness is a rare thing, far rarer than we may have, at first, realized. Every century only a handful of composers transcend their own generation and enter the history’s textbooks
In the last 60 years the names Havergal Brian, Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein while well known to symphony goers, have begun to fade to the background of our contemporary cultural experience. And while attendance at the symphony continues to go down, average patron’s age goes up, and music programs at the grade school level are eliminated, there is consolation knowing that great music and its consumption is alive and well.
I cannot write poetically, for I am no poet. I cannot artfully arrange my phrases so as to give light and shade. Neither am I a painter; nor can I even express my thoughts by gesture and pantomine, for I am no dancer. But I can do so in sounds. I am a musician."