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Williams Surprises Spielberg

Maestro and collaborator pays homage to filmmaker and friend at BU’s Pops concert


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To see and hear Boston University’s Night at the Pops celebration, complete with the John Williams surprise, watch the video above. Thumbnail photo by Kalman Zabarsky.

When renowned composer John Williams first watched a rough cut of Schindler’s List at director Steven Spielberg’s home in Los Angeles, he got so choked up he couldn’t speak.

“I had to walk around the room for four or five minutes to catch my breath,” Williams recalls. “I said to Steven, ‘I really think you need a better composer than I am for this film.’ And he very sweetly said, ‘I know, but they’re all dead.’”

Williams (Hon.’85) told this anecdote at an unannounced appearance at BU’s Night at the Pops Saturday at Symphony Hall, a surprise for Spielberg, who was in the audience, and a delight for the entire hall. The 62-year-old director was in town to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the University’s 136th Commencement on Sunday.

“I was surprised,” Spielberg said after the show. “Johnny and I have spent so much time together, but it’s always planned. To see something that Johnny’s done that’s unplanned, that always surprises me.”

Williams, who led the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980 to 1993, has scored music for 25 of Spielberg’s 27 films, including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the Indiana Jones series. Williams has worked with other legendary directors as well, among them Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, and Robert Altman. The 77-year-old composer has been nominated for 45 Academy Awards, the most of any living artist, and has brought home 5 golden statuettes.

Spielberg, a three-time Oscar winner, said that reuniting with his longtime collaborator in the building where Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan were scored was like a homecoming. “Those two films are very important in my life and in John’s life. It makes my heart grow fonder of Boston.”

The crowd was first treated to the stirring violin of Zoya Tsvetkova (CFA’08), winner of the 2009 Boston University Soloists Competition. Next up was a baseball tribute, highlighted by a rousing performance of “The Boston Baseball Cantata” by baritone James Demler, a College of Fine Arts school of music assistant professor of voice. Pops conductor Keith Lockhart (Hon.’04), who succeeded Williams 15 years ago, donned a Red Sox jersey and tossed mini baseballs into the crowd.

Williams conducted “Flight to Neverland” from Hook, the theme from Schindler’s List, “Raider’s March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the theme from E.T., all of which were met with wild applause and standing ovations, including hearty whoops from the director himself. Williams brought the house down — along with hundreds of red and white balloons from the ceiling — with the Pops signature sign-off, “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

After the show, Spielberg and Williams reunited in Lockhart’s dressing room, where Spielberg summed up their 35-year collaboration.

“I give him images and John finds the emotions for each one,” he said. “Whenever I write a picture and John writes the score for how he sees my picture, it turns out we always see the same movie. We have the same emotional image.”

The process typically begins with Spielberg screening a rough cut for Williams.

“John sees the movie all alone in a room,” Spielberg explained. “The lights go down just like in a movie, and he sees the whole picture and has a whole series of musical impressions. Sometimes when I hear his music, I’ll run to the editing room and make adjustments to better fit the music.”

Williams credits their success to the director’s character, which is “very loyal, very generous, very even and appreciative.

“I would add that he just loves music. He comes to the recording sessions and he listens avidly. He gets real pleasure from the music, even unrelated to its role in the film. This makes the collaboration a healthy and joyous thing. He has fun with it and I have fun doing it with him.

“Last, he’s very musical himself,” Williams said. “He has a musical background. He played clarinet in high school, he can read music and knows the literature, so you’re dealing with someone you can talk to in a pretty literate way about musical styles, tempi, textures, and the like.”

Spielberg has said that if he weren’t able to direct, he’d want to be a composer. Williams chuckled when asked if the reverse were true for him.

“No, I wouldn’t be a director,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to sit up on those cranes all day in the hot sun the way he does.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu. Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.


One Comment on Williams Surprises Spielberg

  • Anonymous on 05.18.2009 at 10:02 am

    J. Williams

    Very, very cool. Super classy move on BU’s part.

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