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A Career of Epic Proportions

John Williams has taken knocks for his movie scores, but as the composer turns 70, he isn't defensive. He enjoys film work.

February 03, 2002|JON BURLINGAME

J ohn Williams is a busy man. Almost too busy to notice his birthday.

On Friday, the composer of "Star Wars" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" turns 70. He will not be commemorating the occasion with, say, a quiet dinner for family and friends. Instead, he'll be celebrating at a slightly bigger party: conducting the Utah Symphony and the 350-voice Mormon Tabernacle in his new Olympic theme, "Call of the Champions," at the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City before a worldwide television audience of, oh, a billion or so.

Just a week ago, he finished recording 110 minutes of music in London for "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" (due May 16). On Saturday, he will again conduct his Olympic music, and other pieces, in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. In three weeks, he'll lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a special birthday concert, with Yo-Yo Ma performing his Cello Concerto. A few days before that, Sony Classical will release a new CD of that work and several more performed by Ma.

"Turning 70 doesn't feel any different than 40," Williams says. His neatly trimmed beard is snow white now, as is most of his wispy hair. "My schedule now is probably not any heavier than it's been for the last 10 or 15 years," he adds. "Most of these commitments are fairly long-standing, so I'm kind of in the rhythm of doing these things."

And doing them pretty well. Four of the top five money-making films of all time, six of the top 10 and eight of the top 15 have music by John Williams. With five Oscars (plus 34 nominations), four Emmys and 18 Grammys, he's the most honored film composer currently working in Hollywood. He is also the highest paid, with fees reportedly exceeding $1 million a picture and the bonus of profit participation on some, meaning extra money if the film is a hit.

Which is a strong possibility. Besides the "Star Wars" movies and "E.T.," think "Jurassic Park," "Home Alone," all three Indiana Jones movies, "Saving Private Ryan" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Think "Jaws."

Without its ominous shark theme, says the film's director, Steven Spielberg, "'Jaws' would have been half as successful."

Spielberg, who has worked with Williams on 17 films, describes himself as "more awestruck by John today than I was when I first met him." That was back in 1973, on his first feature, "The Sugarland Express."

"I've often made a fool of myself, hanging over his piano weeping after he's played me something," says the director, referring to the music for "E.T." and "Schindler's List."

Then there is Williams' career outside of Hollywood--as a conductor, including 14 years at the helm of the Boston Pops, and as a composer of serious music. He has written several concertos, a song cycle, two symphonies, and assorted celebratory works, such as his four Olympic themes. Despite some mixed reviews, the commissions and conducting invitations continue to multiply.

His friend Andre Previn, a composer who had his own bumpy trajectory from the film business to the concert hall, just wishes he'd concentrate more:

"I keep telling him, 'For God's sake, stop writing for those cornball movies and go be a composer.'

"John is much too good a musician to stay satisfied with that forever," Previn continues. "I hate to see him spend so much time doing, you know, 'Home Alone' or whatever. It's so beneath him. But it's a pointless argument, because he likes doing it, and he does it very well."

Williams' writing space looks exactly like a composer's study should. Dozens of pages of musical sketches, neatly notated in pencil, are scattered across the lids of two baby grand pianos with a pair of drafting boards strategically placed around one bench.

Ceiling-high bookcases on both sides of the room are jammed with music books--biographies of the great composers, histories, orchestration texts--and seemingly endless rows of leather-bound scores. A portrait of George Gershwin, together with a canceled check signed by the great American songwriter, is framed on one wall. Williams has been writing music here since 1970, in a corner of the Westwood home he shares with his wife, Samantha, of 21 years. (He has three grown children by a previous marriage and five grandchildren.)

It's the night before he is to leave for Boston, en route to his London "Star Wars" recording dates; he still has to finish composing the closing-credit music for "Attack of the Clones" and pack for the trip. But the soft-spoken Williams shows no signs of strain, segueing into philosophical asides and peppering his conversation with references to T.S. Eliot, John Kenneth Galbraith and Virgil Thomson.

On the question of the concert hall versus the movie theater, he's conciliatory. "The gulf that's existed between the Hollywood music community and our fine arts community has been deeper than any of us would have liked," he says. But attitudes are changing, he believes, and film composers are now more welcome in the concert hall than they were 20 years ago.

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