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Composer for 'Star Wars,' 'Jaws' and 'E.T.' finds inspiration conducting on the road

Thursday, March 29, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

Film composer John Williams let me in on a secret that "Star Wars" junkies won't want to miss. He often gets inspiration for upcoming movie music when he conducts on the road. And with his work on "Star Wars: Episode II" set to begin later this year, this weekend's Pittsburgh Pops concerts might end up being fertile ground for future themes.

Concert Preview

Williams leads the Pops at Heinz Hall, Downtown. 7:30 p.m. tonight March 29 and Sunday; 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets: $27-$66; 412-392-4900


"One of the things that has helped me in my writing has been to come to places like Pittsburgh and Boston and conduct, because it gets the music up off the page," says Williams. "I think that all of life is that way. In the oddest moments we will pick up a phrase or an idea that we may want to expand."

In other words, coming to hear Williams conduct the Pittsburgh Pops might put a young Jedi in the perfect place when the germ of an idea enters the head of one of the most prolific and beloved film composers ever.

At 69, Williams is still going strong as a composer. He just finished the score to Steven Spielberg's Stanley Kubrick homage "A.I." and is soon to begin on "Harry Potter," with the next installment of "Star Wars" looming.

What the former Boston Pops Orchestra conductor has slowed down on is conducting. "My work in Hollywood is so time-consuming and demanding that I can't do very much guest conducting," he says. "I have reduced it over the last five years quite a bit and actually now do very little except for the Hollywood Bowl and Tanglewood. This week in Pittsburgh is, these days, a very rare moment in my schedule."

He is honored by the opportunity, however, to conduct his own works. The Pittsburgh Pops concerts will contain music from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Hook" "E.T.," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jaws," "Superman," "Angela's Ashes" and "Star Wars."

"When I was conducting the Boston Pops for so many years, if I conducted too much of my own music, sometimes people would complain," Williams says. "And if I would come and conduct and didn't play 'Star Wars,' then they would complain because I hadn't done that. So I was in a kind of no-win situation. But to be invited to come to a place like Pittsburgh and do a program of my music and find an audience interested is still thrilling."

Williams' connections to Pittsburgh go back more than 30 years. "I first came to Pittsburgh when Andre Previn visited here sometime in the '60s, when the orchestra was still in the Syria Mosque," he says. "Previn conducted a piece of mine. A very young Daniel Barenboim was on the program also." He was also friends with the late Sen. John Heinz, whom he had met in California. He is also an old friend of PSO managing director Gideon Toeplitz from their days together in Boston.

Williams has flourished in Hollywood circles because he mastered the hectic, goods-on-demand pace of the movie industry early on, from masters like Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman and Franz Waxman. "Some of these films by Spielberg and Lucas have 90-100 minutes of music -- it's almost like writing an opera, if not in quality, certainly in quantity. It's a field that demands a lot of diligence and self-discipline and a good work ethic.

"Of course, whenever you face a blank piece of paper, there is always that feeling, 'Can I do a good job this time? Will I be as good as I was last week?' Whatever field we are in we all deal with that. Not everything we do is the highest level that we could achieve."

These days, he makes sure he has some down time, however. "I am an avid reader of all sorts of literature," he says. "I also walk about an hour a day, not particularly for health reasons, but I enjoy it. I am addicted to that. It's been a great source or relaxation and exercise and a period of solitude during which I often solve a lot of musical problems."


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