August 26, 2012 leonard slatkin

There are some promises that must be broken occasionally. After vowing a real vacation this summer, I accepted an invitation to be one of the participants in John Williams’s 80th birthday concert at Tanglewood. The actual date of his coming into the world was in February, but John only wanted one celebration and it was to take place in the Berkshires.

When I was young, John was but a studio pianist in LA. It could hardly have been predicted that he would become one of the most important composers in the world. He worked often with my parents, showing the curiosity for the music business that would mark his entire life. From his role as a keyboardist, to that of an arranger, to a jingle and TV composer and finally to the big screen, John’s path was clear and well defined.

He studied piano at the Juilliard School with the legendary teacher Rosina Lhevinne. During this time, he formed a friendship with Henry Mancini, which would serve him well upon his return to Los Angeles. It was John who played the opening riff for the Peter Gunn show. It turned out that we both studied with the same composition teacher, the underrated composer Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco. While refining his skills, John started to write his own music for TV, including the pilot for Gilligan’s Island, the music for Lost in Space as well as Time Tunnel.

His work caught the attention of a young Steven Spielberg and of course, the rest is history.

The connections with my family were close, more with my mother rather than my father. She served as John’s first cellist for so many films, including the 1975 thriller, Jaws. Eleanor was the one who played those ominous two notes, denoting aquatic danger. If the occasion arose when I was in attendance at one of John’s concerts, he would quip to the audience that my mother was frightening children ever since that time. Of course my obvious response was that she was scaring them quite a long time before that.

This would actually be the last time my mom played the cello professionally. With that score, she put the instrument down and only brought it out for special occasions.

Think about this.

Beethoven gave us the most memorable four not motive in all of music. Did John best the German master by two?

Over the years it has been my pleasure to conduct his music all over the world. For me, perhaps because it was always part of my background, I made no differentiation between any styles of composition. A great work is a great work, regardless of where it comes from.

John and I collaborated on a wonderful two-week project in Washington devoted to film music. For the occasion, he wrote a 4-minute piece to accompany a silent film montage. It was impossible to forget the sight of John and me seated at an upright piano, a single light illuminating the music and both of us wearing head shades.

One cannot overestimate the respect John commands from the musical world. This was one of the reasons I felt compelled to break up my holiday and journey to the Berkshires for the celebration. Also the fact that John himself asked me to participate. I have been performing his film and concert music for as long as I can remember. In Detroit, we have been recording the concerti that he has written for various soloists and we will continue in the coming season with the work for bassoon and orchestra.

The Tanglewood concert was with the Boston Pops, which meant most of the regular BSO members, minus most of the principals. However, the majority of the wind players decided to participate in the show, including three who had solo performances with movements of the oboe, horn and tuba concertos.

There were three conductors: me, Keith Lockhart and former assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung, who led the three concerto portions. Keith did the honors with several fanfares and music from Harry Potter. My role was to basically close each half. With music from E.T and Star Wars, as well as short pieces from Memoirs of a Geisha and Schindler’s List, we certainly had a lot of variety.

At the start of the evening, a screen was lowered and Brian Williams from NBC News was seen in his usual backdrop, pretending that John’s birthday was the lead story that night. Subsequent videos contained appearances from presidents Obama and Clinton, the Boston Red Sox and George Lucas. There were special guests who came to Tanglewood to participate, including Jessye Norman, James Taylor and Steven Spielberg.

About 18,000 people attended, the largest crowd at Tanglewood this season, and the love was felt throughout the evening,. Weather was ideal if not a little chilly. John was seated in the audience and a security detail surrounded him to keep the public from mobbing him.

After the concert there was a lovely party at Serenak, the former home of Tanglewood’s founder, the BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky. A few members of the audience were there, including Andre Previn. Near the end of the evening, John and I joined him at a table and we had a wonderful discussion, filled with stories of Hollywood and music in general. Listening to these two giants was incredible and I was once again reminded of how lucky I am to be able to participate in fantastic musical experiences.

With the evening over it was time to head back to my hotel in Stockbridge and continue the holiday. But I am not sure anything could be more relaxing than honoring the man whose music is known by pretty much everyone in the world.

Happy Birthday, John.

See you in a few weeks,