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Film composer John Williams to make Baltimore conducting premiere

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John Williams has won just about everything there is to win in the music industry, including a slew of Grammys, Golden Globes, Emmys and no less than five Academy Awards — his record of 48 Oscar nominations is second only to Walt Disney.

If the 81-year-old composer, whose career encompasses the campy mid-'60s vintage TV series "Lost in Space" and last year's sobering, soaring movie "Lincoln," wanted to rest on his comfy stack of laurels, no one would blame him.

But Williams remains as busy as ever with film projects, commissions for concert works and conducting gigs. One of the latter will find him in town Tuesday to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a benefit concert for the musicians' pension fund.

"Two years ago, [BSO music director] Marin Alsop wrote me and said, 'Please come to do a concert in Baltimore.' It took a while, but we finally worked out a date," Williams said. "I know it's a great orchestra, and I look forward to meeting the musicians. I like the rehearsal more than the concert sometimes."

The fundraiser marks Williams' BSO debut and his first trip to Baltimore. He is donating his services for the event.

"This is one of a group of concerts I've done like this around the country and will continue to do," he said. "We have the best orchestras in the world, and all of them need support. Maybe in some small way I can be of help to them."

That help comes at a good time for the BSO, which has run into deficits after years of balanced budgets, due, in part, to increased pension costs.

Tuesday's program features excerpts from some of Williams' most familiar film scores, including "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Harry Potter," and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

"It is a thrill and an honor to have him come here to do this concert," said the orchestra's principal trumpet, Andrew Balio. "We need more people like this to go to bat for us. He can come back every year as far as I'm concerned."

The Long Island-born, Juilliard-trained Williams gained conducting experience not long after he started working in Hollywood in the late 1950s, composing and playing piano.

"I started conducting only out of self-defense," he said. "I felt I could get what I wanted [with my music] more quickly than some conductors working in the film studios. I certainly never had an ambition or studied to be a public performer as a conductor."

But Williams turned out to have a knack for it. His talent was noticed inside the studios and beyond.

After the death of longtime Boston Pops music director Arthur Fiedler in 1979, the orchestra offered the post to Williams. He took the helm in 1980 and enjoyed a 14-year run in the job.

"I felt that nobody could successfully succeed Arthur Fiedler, and some professional conductors might actually damage his or her own career by trying," Williams said. "I had nothing to lose, and I could gain the joy of experiencing a live audience, which we don't have in the studio."

Along the way, Williams also found time to compose music for the concert hall. He has written several concertos, including one for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony. One of his newest pieces, "For The President's Own," was composed for the 215th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Band, which premiered it last week at Wolf Trap.

At his California home, Williams continues to balance film and concert work.

"There is a considerable amount of material in front of me for the next few years," he said. "There are two or three projects for Steven Spielberg — very exciting things he's doing, some in development now. And a new 'Star Wars' [Episode 7] looms. I'll have to do my sit-ups."

That the composer has been an integral part of the epic "Star Wars" phenomenon since 1977 says a lot.

"After the first one I did with George Lucas, I did not have any idea there would be a second," the composer said. "We all thought kids would enjoy it for a couple of weekends and go on."

Williams seems to have little trouble maintaining energy or avoiding writer's block.

"I don't have that problem," he said. "Maybe I should, from time to time. I rarely go a day without scribbling something down. But I have to tell you, the production gets a little slow."

Many composers today speed up some things by using computer technology that can get notes on paper with a click of a mouse. Not Williams, who uses very last-century pencil and paper.

"I used to do scoring in pen, but the eraser is too useful," he said. "I have colleagues who can write a 90-minute score in three or four weeks with a computer. It would take me three or four months. I have been, happily, fully occupied for all these working years and have not had the time off to retool and learn the technology that has come along. That is kind of a lame excuse, but there it is."

Whatever the process involved, a Williams score is inevitably distinctive, with a rich vein of lyricism and a broad palette of orchestral colors. Like Hollywood film score giants Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann, he creates what become cinematic symphonies, filled with themes that work their way quickly into the ear while serving to propel a scene or illuminate a character.

The BSO's Balio, a sci-fi fan, is one of the composer's ardent admirers.

"The guy's a legend," Balio said. "He's in the tradition of the great composers. And he's putting a classical sound in people's ears. He's writing for orchestra, not electronic instruments. And he is so generous to the brass. He writes amazing trumpet parts."

Balio will get one of those solo parts during the BSO concert, playing a selection from "Lincoln."

Composing the score to that acclaimed Spielberg film, which chronicles the nail-biting struggle to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, proved a "daunting" task, Williams said, especially because he did not take the easiest route and incorporate a lot of well-known music of the period.

"The score is made up of all original pieces," he said. "I wanted it to sound genuine. To get it just right, I wanted the music to feel as if it was coming out of the bedrock of the American spirit — the soul, I guess. I hope I got it reasonably right."

A suggestion by Spielberg resulted in that score being performed in a decidedly classy fashion.

"Steven felt we should look to the state of Illinois, which was the 'Land of Lincoln,' of course, and also the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment," Williams said. "So we decided to record the score with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The individual and full ensemble playing on the soundtrack is so elegant; there is such a level of artistry. I'm extremely grateful for their contribution to the music."

From his vantage point — he easily qualifies as the dean of American film composers — Williams sees good and not so good in the film industry.

He is concerned about the abundance of violence, and he wonders if the increasing reliance on computer technology will mean less and less emphasis on things like screenwriting. ("When was the last time you heard something with the quality of Tony Kushner's writing in 'Lincoln'?") But he is upbeat about prospects for the part of the business that has filled his life.

"I do see more young composers serious about film music," Williams said."We can expect some beautiful things. I'd like to come back in 30 or 40 years and see what they're doing. They will best us all. They need to write better than you and I can, and show us that they can with — well, if it's an art form, I couldn't say."

It certainly is whenever John Williams practices it.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

John Williams conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For possible ticket availability, call 410-783-8000.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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