We’re off to see the Wizard: A meeting with composer John Williams
March 25, 2014
While in New York City this January, I received a Facebook message from my old Juilliard and Tanglewood Music Festival classmate David Buck. David is currently the Principal Flute of the Detroit Symphony and was formerly Principal Flute of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. What he asked made me fall out of my chair. David inquired if I would accompany him to the legendary (and still very much living) composer John Williams’ own home to work on Mr. Williams’ 1968
Concerto for Flute,
one of his ‘serious’ concert pieces. Before I go any further, I am of course referring to
John Williams, composer of such soundtracks as “Star Wars”, “Jaws”, “Jurassic Park”, “Harry Potter”, and many others. In other words, the most prolific and legendary composers for film in the history of the genre.
Once I recovered, I asked David if I could see the piano reduction to the orchestral score, which he sent to my iPhone. (Ah, technology.) David was scheduled to record this rarely performed work with the
under its music director, Leonard Slatkin, and he was planning to fly to Los Angeles to work on the concerto with Mr. Williams, but he needed a pianist, preferably one who understands full orchestral scores.
While I serve as the Director of Orchestral Activities in Chapman’s
Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music
and as Music Director and Conductor of The Chapman Orchestra (and of the Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra – OCYSO – the orchestra in residence at Chapman), I was trained as a concert pianist at
The Curtis Institute of Music
in Philadelphia and at
The Juilliard School
where David and I first met. I was honored and flattered at the invitation, and a bit intimidated as the meeting with Mr. Williams was in a mere three weeks. I was still in New York, without access to the grand piano that I have in my office at Chapman, and facing a very busy schedule ahead. (The Chapman Orchestra, along with OCYSO, is jointly presenting Beethoven’s monumental
at Segerstrom Concert Hall on May 15, and we are already deep in the rehearsal process).
I returned to California and realized that I would have to learn at least 3 pages a day of a very dense, highly complex score, not your ‘usual’ John Williams fare. Since David and I only had one chance at a rehearsal (which was really more a run-through,) I needed to be 100% prepared. Then, Murphy’s Law struck. I contracted the stomach virus that had been plaguing the country. To boot, an old shoulder injury forced me to obtain injections of cortisone and drive 30 minutes in each direction for physiotherapy, all while I was trying to learn this maddeningly difficult, yet extremely interesting, piece! It wasn’t a fun time, and I was reeling from the pressure of meeting the wizard himself.
Fast forward: David flew in from Detroit, and we met at a colleague’s home on the westside of Los Angeles who was gracious enough to lend me her living room and Steinway grand piano. David and I worked for hours; he was stupendously prepared, with sticky notes highlighting discrepancies in the full orchestral score, his own flute part and in a copy of the piano reduction.
We met again the following morning and drove together to Mr. Williams’ elegant, but certainly modest, home. As we walked up the manicured path to the front door I couldn’t help but whistle
“We’re off to the see the Wizard”
and several snippets from “Harry Potter.” David and I were certainly excited, but we weren’t necessarily nervous. In our profession, we work with legends a great deal, and our awe was driven more out of respect for all that Mr. Williams has accomplished in his many decades as a composer. His is the soundtrack of our youth.
We were welcomed into the foyer and Mr. Williams bounded right in. His first words of welcome were, “I can’t believe you made this whole trip just to see me.” He invited us into his living room with its two grand pianos, busts of famous composers and photographs of himself with President Obama (my deduction is that it was probably from the recent White House screening of “Lincoln”). Mr. Williams natural warmth and caring immediately put us at ease. I had met him briefly once before, backstage at the Tanglewood Festival, and even then he was genuine and gracious to this young conducting student. (Anyone who has worked with him will tell you that this is his character. While demanding in his craft, he is a scholar and a gentleman.)
We spent 45-50 minutes discussing the history of the Flute Concerto, which Mr. Williams hardly remembered writing. It slowly came back to him and at one point he excused himself to fetch the original print of the concerto, which apparently lives in vaults somewhere in the house. David and I exchanged looks; somewhere in the house were the original manuscripts to “Star Wars” and “Jaws.” Altogether, we discussed many topics from his years as the legendary conductor of the Boston Pops to those at Disney Concert Hall and Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where he had just conducted the previous week. David and I found it extraordinarily easy to converse with him before we turned our collective attention to the task at hand.
As I sat at one of two Steinway pianos (“I hope the piano is ok!”), I couldn’t help but notice a writing table to the left of the keyboard (pictured above.) I turned to Mr. Williams; he smiled and said that is in fact where he composed. He sheepishly explained that he wasn’t much of a computer person, was old fashioned and wrote by pencil. And what exquisite penmanship he has! We were able to glimpse works in progress, and they were meticulous. To my right, there was what he called the ‘discard pile’, a pile of manuscript papers. David and I were tempted to snag one, which of course we didn’t.
David and I then launched into the Concerto while Mr. Williams sat in his rocking chair with the score in his lap. When it was over, Mr. Williams was quiet for a few moments (which felt like eternity) before heaping praise upon David for his interpretation, his stylistic choices and his sound and technique. (He was quite complimentary towards me as well, but let’s move on.) What ensued was a master class in the truest sense of the words. It was the experience and conviction of a seasoned master who, in a truly collaborative spirit, worked with us on achieving the best results possible. Mr. Williams was deferential with respect to technical challenges, showing touching inquisitiveness about the possibilities on the flute. David would give him several options for fingerings and harmonics, all which change the sound of a musical effect, and Mr. Williams would mull these, often asking my opinion as well. Very often in such situations, a composer is so emotionally tied to what they wrote that there is little wiggle room. In this case, it was as if Mr. Williams was discovering his work anew, and in a sense, he was. At one point, Mr. Williams conducted us both in trying a different way of shaping a phrase. It was amazing. As a conductor myself, much of my job is convincing the musicians with whom I work of my musical intention. With Mr. Williams, you didn’t even realize that you were being convinced of his intention. It was masterful.
When we were done playing and discussing, Mr. Williams excused himself briefly and returned with his housekeeper who brought out plate after plate of miniature sandwiches, fruit and cookies. She also insisted on making us tea to go along with the remains of Mr. Williams’ birthday cake; it was his 81
birthday the previous day. Sitting around the living room table and eating lunch, our conversation turned to the latest audio technology and cinema. (I’m afraid this part of the conversation must remain off record…!) I mentioned to Mr. Williams that he simply had to make a visit to the New World Symphony (NWS) in Miami Beach, which is modeled after Disney Hall and has one of the world’s most advanced audio and visual systems of any concert hall in the world. “That’s funny you should mention that since I just received a letter from Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Founder, inviting me to Miami next February. I think I’ll go!” I’ll take full credit.
It was time to go, and Mr. Williams graciously allowed us to take photos with him and he kindly signed our copies of the music. It was an unforgettable and inspiring experience, one which I shall never forget.