Sour note on Williams is wrong tune

I’m sure that others were as puzzled as I was the other day when I read the letters to the editor. Someone wrote to disparage John Williams, probably the most successful composer of movie music in history and one of the nicest, most self-effacing men I have ever met. The writer accused Williams of egotism and, among other things, of short-changing the crowd at Tanglewood on Film Night by not playing an encore. At least the guy signed his name, which is more than we can say about all the denizens of the Internet who hide behind anonymity.

I’ve interviewed thousands of people in my life and in terms of nice, giving, decent people, I would put Williams at the very top of the list. He is as thoughtful as he is generous. Unfortunately, when you put yourself in the public eye, you open yourself up not only to your fans, but to your detractors. It comes with the territory.

No one has been more involved with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood than Williams. For years, he conducted the Boston Pops, having succeeded the great Arthur Fiedler, an icon in the business. Frankly, I thought Williams’ style preferable: less histrionics, more substance. I have never heard anyone say that Williams wasn’t as good as Fiedler. He loves the Berkshires and the bucolic country life he enjoys when he’s here and compares the peace and quiet of Tanglewood to the noise of Los Angeles. Indeed, he wrote the haunting music to “Schindler’s List” while in residence here.

Williams is at the forefront of a program that will pay homage to the founding fathers of the Boston Symphony. This is being done by the commissioning of sculpted busts of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Serge Koussevitzky that will be put on permanent display at Tanglewood for the tens of thousands of visitors to see. One really can’t understand the Boston Symphony’s summer home unless you understand the great men and women who made it what it is. I was present at the dedication of a bust of Copland and found it incredibly moving. In my opinion, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its Pops are the best in the world and they didn’t get that way without the passion of their founding fathers.

Of course, Williams’ work with both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg has been extraordinary. He has won five Academy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, seven BAFTA Awards, and 21 Grammy Awards. When I called him a genius in our radio interview, he went out of his way to eschew the designation. He may be modest, but, of course, he’s wrong. He writes every day, sticking to an established routine which works for him. As I write this at 5 o’clock in the morning, I understand his point. We spoke about how influential Leonard Bernstein was in his life and, though he never met Copland, they were around the Tanglewood campus at the same time.

As Williams conducted the Pops the other night with his characteristic dignity, I felt so grateful for the opportunity to enjoy his genius and learn about how movies are made and how much the music contributes to the finished project. While the massive standing ovation was taking place, it appeared he was thinking about whether or not to play an encore. Finally, he folded his hands under his chin in the universal symbol indicating “time to go to sleep” and left the stage. I was ready to hit the hay, too, so I was most appreciative of his signal to all of us. It appeared that he recognized how late it was and that he was thinking of us, his audience. We are very lucky to have this remarkable man among us.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 8/27/11

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