Composer John Williams reflects on Tanglewood's enduring spirit


LENOX -- When John Williams comes to the Berkshires -- as he has been virtually every year since 1979 -- he sets up shop in his lodgings, piano, pencil and manuscript at hand, to continue composing film scores in progress.

But after five or six hours of work, six days a week, he takes a break and is often found strolling the grounds at Tanglewood, communing with nature in a quest for further inspiration.

At Highwood Manor on Tuesday morning, just ahead of a rehearsal for the annual Tanglewood on Parade extravaganza, Williams -- who has appeared at the event just about every year since he took over leadership of the Boston Pops from Arthur Fiedler in 1980 -- chatted about the emotional and spiritual sustenance the Boston Symphony's summer hall has provided for him.

On Tuesday night, he conducted music from his classic score, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," as well as his recent "Adventures of Tintin." On Aug. 18 at a gala concert, the BSO will honor him on his 80th birthday year.

"This has been a wonderful place for me to write, I've done so much of my film work here," Williams said. He listed all the "Harry Potter" films, the score for "Schindler's List" -- "written entirely here," he said -- and many other projects that bear the stamp of Tanglewood, including the cello concerto he composed for his friend, Yo-Yo Ma.

"I've loved working here," Williams added, though he noted that his home base, Los Angeles, is "a wonderful place to live, we have a fabulous musical community there, going way back. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff lived there."

But he extolled "the quietude, the distance from the exciting but commercial atmosphere of the Hollywood studios" of Tanglewood.

"For me, it's the other side of the coin where I can come and work, it could still be a Hollywood project without the freeways, the traffic jams, a lot of the stresses we have in these metropolitan areas. This is a haven."

"My first sight of Tanglewood was in November 1979 after [former BSO Managing Director] Thomas Morris had invited me to conduct the Pops," Williams recalled as he gazed out at the view of Stockbridge Bowl. "He said to me that I need to see what Tanglewood is all about, and he drove me up on a cold, snowy day in November or December. I was struck, particularly as a Californian, that the contrast was so great."

In the summer of 1980, as he conducted the Pops for the first time here, Williams said that he "got my first view of it in its full, glorious summer dress and gorgeous trees that we don't have in California, the bucolic splendor of the place combined with this artistic institution."

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Williams, acknowledging Tanglewood as not only as his own "spiritual home" but also the spiritual center of music in America, told The Eagle: "I don't know of anything else in our country that rivals Tanglewood in terms of the level of music study that takes place and performance experiments with contemporary music through 75 years."

He saluted Tanglewood founder Serge Koussevitzky's dedication to commit the BSO's "permanent attachment to music education" through the institute for advanced young musicians originally known as the Berkshire Music Center. "I don't believe any other orchestra does it quite in the way it's done here.

"So the location, what's accomplished here, the level of students attracted here every year, enhances what is already a very inspirational setting," he added.

During a conversation occasionally punctuated by nearby cannon test-firings for the "1812 Overture" that were to conclude Tuesday night's gala, Williams credited the enduring success of Tanglewood, in part, to "the generosity of Berkshire County and the state to be a partner in the way that they've been."

Noting the 66-year history of the Tanglewood on Parade annual tradition as a showcase for the young musicians who study here all summer, Williams said that "we see in each class wonderful idealism, dedication and commitment to their work. It's all fresh and new to them, not unlike what we feel when we see these young athletes in the Olympics -- complete commitment to pursue excellence in every core of their body, and these young musicians here do the same thing."

"That gives all of us who are older a sense of renewed commitment to the art that we love so much," said Williams, "and an assurance that it's there and will be with us. My sense of it is that these young people are far ahead of those of us who were studying 40 or 50 years ago. The athletes will jump a little further and go a little higher, and we see it happening in music study also."

But, he cautioned, "we need to develop an audience consistent with the quality that these kids are going to be able to produce. The mass media we have on television and even in film would possibly desensitize a broad audience in the way that might be coarsening to public taste.

"The balance between the education of young musicians and the development of their futures and the audiences that will receive and enjoy all of this and support it is a balance that needs to be consciously nurtured, to make the contributions to our culture and society that the arts need to do."

With more than 100 film scores under his belt and a bevy of awards -- five Oscars, 47 Academy Award nominations among many other honors -- Williams often cites his 1977 collaboration with Steven Spielberg, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," as one of his most cherished musical creations.

"I've always felt that the film added up to a sum greater than any of its parts," he said. "When it was put together, its message had more weight than we might have expected. It's uplifting, very positive and romantic, but the idea of celebrating communication in that way where the new arrivals were beautiful and peaceful and friendly, breaking down barriers in the best way, displaying no aggressiveness or defensiveness, that's all been somehow mutated out of them [the aliens] and it's maybe an example of the way we want to try to go. It's a very positive thing."


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