Quartet La Jolla/ John Williams

August 14, 2011

Friday August 19th will offer the premiere of a new classical/serious/music of a chamber piece from John Williams. The ensemble is a most unusual combination as it is written for harp, clarinet, cello, and violin certainly a radical departure from the normal quartet. I’ve included a short article that appeared in the Sunday SD Union Tribune as John was interviewed. Tickets are $45 – 65. If you’re interested further information can be obtained by calling the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest at 858-459-3728. If you’re coming from Los Angeles allow plenty of time as the Del Mar Racing Season is going on and to get the auditorium you’ll need to go past it on the 5 South.

You might assume the most celebrated film composer of the last four decades, John Williams, is enamored with the movies. He’s not.“It will surprise you: I’m not an avid moviegoer and I never really was,” said Williams, whose themes for movies like “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Wars” and, more recently, the “Harry Potter” series are etched into the collective consciousness. But he is enamored with music.

“As a young musician, I was fascinated with Bernard Herrmann, who I met as a youngster and worked for as a pianist. I also worked for Alfred Newman, whose music I admired, though not quite in the same way I did Herrmann’s. What I especially admired about Newman was his conducting ability. And they happened to be working in film. I was less interested in the films they were doing than the work they were doing.”

Perhaps that focus helps explain why Williams, whose “Quartet La Jolla” will be premiered Friday at SummerFest, has had a career without boundaries. With five Academy Awards (and 45 nominations, second only to Walt Disney), 21 Grammy Awards, at least 17 honorary degrees and countless other honors, he’s achieved fame as a film composer. But he’s also written numerous “serious” works and enjoyed a distinguished career as a conductor, not only of the Boston Pops Orchestra (from 1980-93), but also major symphonic ensembles from Los Angeles to New York.

“Being pigeonholed is something I never really worried very much about,” Williams said. “I started working as a pianist in the studios strictly because I needed to earn a living as a young person out of school (UCLA and Juilliard). I couldn’t imagine anyone could earn a living writing music unless you could get very lucky and write popular songs.

“I always loved what (experimental composer) Milton Babbitt said: He loved to write popular songs but they were never popular.”

Williams hasn’t had that issue with his music. He’s written scores for some of the most successful movies by directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and his score to the first “Star Wars” film is among the top-selling soundtracks of all time.

“Working in film is a very different kind of discipline,” Williams said. “So many of the parameters of what we are called upon to write are given: the length of a scene, the texture, the dynamics, perhaps even the period or style of the music.

“Whereas with a piece of music like this quartet — call it classical, or serious, or just music if you like — there are no parameters. It can be anything. It can be loud, soft, long, short, complex, simple, experimental, traditional, any of the above or all of them.

“So there’s a greater freedom, certainly, and a greater challenge. I’d have to say its more difficult.”

The genesis of “Quartet La Jolla” was a request by SummerFest music director Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin, who encountered Williams while performing at Tanglewood, that Williams write a piece for Lin’s California festival.

Williams took the idea under advisement, and as he was already writing a harp concerto for the Boston Symphony, he decided to experiment with the harp in a chamber context that also included violin, clarinet and cello. He wrote two movements and then set the project aside until one of Lin’s associates applied more pressure.

“I’ve been pretty regularly visiting Chicago Symphony to conduct every year for the past 10 years or so, and two or three years back, John Yeh, who played principal clarinet at Chicago, came in the dressing room and said, ‘I hear you are writing a piece for Jimmy Lin and it has a clarinet in it. I hope you are going to finish the piece.’

“And at that point, I had no idea whether I was going to have time, or energy, or any of the required things, and he said, ‘Oh, please finish it.’ ”

Yeh badgered Williams again the next year, and finally Williams completed the piece. “The creation of this little thing has taken place over a half-dozen years or so,” Williams said, with a tinge of amazement in his voice. He doesn’t have that kind of time with his movie scores, although the creation of those simple yet enduring themes that are one of his trademarks takes longer than you might think.

“Those are the hardest things to do,” Williams said. “I spend a lot of time with those little things to try to get them just right and reduce them down to a few notes or something that will speak in a few bars.

“A little tune like the Indiana Jones march, for example, is something I struggled with for weeks. It’s like sculpting in a way. You keep working on the stone until you find the figure that’s always been in it. And it’s discovered with patient uncovering.”

As those themes are often associated with individual characters in the movie, some writers have surmised that Williams must have been influenced by Wagner, who introduced the idea of leitmotifs in his operas. But Williams scoffs at such a comparison.

“I’ve actually heard very little of his music, and I’m not a particular fan of his for a lot of reasons,” Williams said. “I’ve been much more interested, as a youngster particularly, in the Soviets, the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and certainly Stravinsky, although you wouldn’t call him a Soviet, and the French composers.”

But as he gets older, Williams finds himself tending more toward Haydn and Mozart.

“I begin to hear what came after them, sometimes, as excessive chromaticism,” he said. “Our tastes do change, in that they become more simple; we become more interested in the pure elements of music. I can study the finale of (Mozart’s) ‘Jupiter’ Symphony with the greatest pleasure, a lot more pleasure than studying ‘What Next,’ the Elliott Carter opera. I don’t know what that tells you. Maybe it just tells you I’m becoming an old man.”

You might assume that the 79-year-old Williams’ own music is becoming more spare, more pure. It’s not.

“From piece to piece, I guess, it changes a little bit, but I think the accurate response to that has to be, no,” he said. “I’m working on a couple films now (‘War Horse’ and ‘The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn,’ both directed by Spielberg) and the scores are very cluttered with notes.”

jim.chute@uniontrib.com Twitter: @sdutchute Facebook: SDUT Art & Music

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After 32-year-old composer Sean Shepherd introduced himself to the SummerFest audience as the “whippersnapper” on Friday’s “Commissions and Premieres” concert at Sherwood Auditorium, 72-year-old composer Joan Tower had little choice: “Unlike Sean,” she said prior to the West Coast premiere of her piano quartet, “White Granite,” “I’m elderly.”

In fact, the oldest composer on the intriguing program was 79-year-old John Williams, who was not present to defend himself during the world premiere of his “Quartet La Jolla.”

Still, the distance between the three composers, who are not only separated by age but also by background and temperament, was not as far as you might expect.

All three wrote in a mildly dissonant, quasi tonal idiom that was horizontally oriented (more melodically than harmonically focused), and all three exploited the individual characters of their instruments.

Surprisingly, Shepherd’s Oboe Quartet operated within the most limited expressive parameters, despite being specifically written for the unique lyrical talents of oboist Liang Wang. Wringing every last nuance out of his twisting, turning lines, Wang did his part, and violinist Jennifer Koh, violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Felix Fan were equally attentive, but the piece had an academic quality that the ensemble was unable to crack.

No one would ever accuse Williams of being academic, and his appealing quartet was enlivened by an enthusiastic rendering by violinist Cho-Liang Lin, cellist Joshua Roman, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and harpist Deborah Hoffman.

Tower’s “White Granite,” however, made the strongest impression, exploiting elements that could be described as simply as melodies going up and going down, and passages of unrelenting harshness juxtaposed with those of aching softness. The interpretation by violinist Margaret Batjer, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Joshua Roman and pianist André-Michel Schub sounded definitive. With committed performances like these, SummerFest is a good place for composers to be, no matter what their age.

Needless to say I was disappointed he did not make an appearance but being a lover of chamber music I enjoyed it very much. The combination he chose worked quite well. I’ve included an opinion from the Union Tribune. Gee wasn’t it nice that they gave him such wonderful coverage.

 

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