It is a rare privilege to be able to sit down with composer John Williams and discuss his latest project. I was honored that he agreed to talk about his 42-year history with the Star Wars franchise and especially the long-awaited finale, The Rise of Skywalker, which opens this week. In this piece for Variety — believed to be the composer’s only print interview for the new film — Williams talks not only about the movie but about how it all came about back in 1976. Director J.J. Abrams chimes in with some thoughtful historical perspective. The print version was truncated; the online version, which you can read here, contains considerably more information of interest to every Star Wars fan. A few weeks ago, I discussed his latest Grammy nominations, which now bring his total to 71 (including 24 wins)!
There’s no other way to say it: Being present when John Williams conducted, and Anne-Sophie Mutter played, “Night Journeys” from Williams’ score for Dracula, on the Sony scoring stage in April 2019, was one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life. It was a privilege to be present for two days of the recording, and then to write the notes for this remarkable collection of Williams film themes, freshly arranged for one of the world’s great violin soloists. There are 12 in all, but some of my favorites are “Rey’s Theme,” “Hedwig’s Theme,” “Across the Stars” and “Nice to Be Around” (the latter, from Cinderella Liberty which, like Dracula, was suggested by Mutter’s late husband, and Williams’ longtime friend, Andre Previn). Here is a fun behind-the-scenes video that gives a sense of what it was like to be there (try to spot me!). Later, there will also be an expanded edition with more tracks and a DVD that I helped to edit for my friends at Deutsche Grammophon.
I loved the headline that Variety editors affixed to this story: “John Williams in Disneyland.” Well, sort of: the Imagineers who conceived and built the new Galaxy’s Edge land in the California theme park (soon to open in Florida too) convinced the legendary Star Wars composer to add one more piece to his many existing film themes for the George Lucas-created universe. This was done in great secrecy, and while Williams was unavailable for my Variety story — the first to delve into it in any detail — I did get both William Ross, the longtime Williams associate who orchestrated and conducted it, and Matt Walker, the Disney exec who commissioned it, to discuss the process and the grand symphonic music that resulted.
Make no mistake, it is always an honor to be asked to write about composer John Williams. I never take it for granted. So it was a distinct pleasure to be asked to write the program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s January 2019 concerts celebrating the famed film composer (and even greater fun to attend, as conductor Gustavo Dudamel, an unabashed Williams fan, conducted the entire program at Disney Hall). Deutsche Grammophon, which recorded all four nights, then asked me for an essay commemorating Williams’ long history with the Philharmonic for a two-CD set. Along the way I got to mention all of the repertoire played so brilliantly (a greatest-hits selection that ranged from Close Encounters and E.T. to Harry Potter and Jurassic Park).
It is always a joy to write about the music of John Williams, of course, but I rarely get the chance to discuss his concert music. This was a happy exception. Thomas Hooten, the immensely talented principal trumpet for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, asked the maestro to conduct an L.A. orchestra in his 1996 trumpet concerto (and, to fill out the album, his 1989 theme for Born on the Fourth of July, which also features a magnificent trumpet solo). Private donations and crowd-funding made it all possible, and when it was finished Hooten asked me for an essay about the work for the booklet. I was delighted to participate in this real labor of love.
I was honored to be asked to pen the program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s four-day series of concerts paying tribute to the great John Williams. Gustavo Dudamel conducted a thrilling greatest-hits collection of music that included four of his Oscar winners (Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Schindler’s List), popular movie hits (Close Encounters, Raiders, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter) and more. I’m also delighted to be able to announce that I have written the liner notes for Deutsche Grammophon’s upcoming 2-CD recording of those concerts. Click on the image at left to read the L.A. Phil program notes.
This weekend John Williams, the most famous composer in Hollywood history, celebrated his 40th anniversary conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. His very first concert leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Bowl was on July 28, 1978, subbing for an ailing Arthur Fiedler, who had been scheduled to conduct a pair of “Pops at the Bowl” concerts that weekend. Since then, the much-honored dean of American film composers has returned to the Bowl on dozens of occasions, conducting not only his own music but that of other composers, most of whom were active in Hollywood at one time or another. The program included not only Williams compositions but also those of a friend and mentor, Leonard Bernstein (whose centennial is also being celebrated this year). Steven Spielberg served as host; David Newman conducted the first half. Here is my review for Variety.
Composer John Powell, the much-respected Oscar nominee for How to Train Your Dragon (and such other delightful animated scores as Happy Feet, Rio and Ferdinand), reviewed the entire Solo: A Star Wars Story experience with me for this Variety story, which ran the day before the film opened. It’s a fascinating odyssey that involves collaboration with John Williams (who penned “The Adventures of Han” theme used throughout Powell’s score), the creation of several new themes, and an unusual trip to Bulgaria to record a women’s choir for the score.
It’s always an honor to spend time with the legendary John Williams. I had a few moments with the maestro before he received BMI’s latest honor, named after him, and added a few tidbits about his current schedule in the Variety story I wrote the next morning. He was especially excited about the piece he’s written for cello and harp to celebrate the Leonard Bernstein centennial later this year at his beloved Tanglewood.
Composer John Williams has won practically every award possible in his long and distinguished career — Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, even the Kennedy Center Honor and the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. So Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), one of the nation’s leading performing-rights societies — which had already given him its top honor in 1999 — gave him an even higher honor by naming a new award after him. It was a particularly star-studded evening, as I tried to convey in this Variety story about the society’s annual Film, TV and Visual Media Awards in Beverly Hills.