John Williams to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic

In its roll of maestros from Otto Nicolai to Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss to Herbert von Karajan, Pierre Boulez to Riccardo Muti, this must be the first time the self-regarding Vienna Philharmonic has invited a film composer to occupy its podium.

Here’s the carefully understated press release:

December 19, 2019 – Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the world’s most respected artists, begins 2020 with two concerts led by her friend and colleague John Williams. The concerts entitled “A Tribute to John Williams” will feature Williams and Mutter at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic in a program to include selections from their album Across the Stars which was released in August 2019.

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    • =first time the self-regarding Vienna Philharmonic has invited a film composer to occupy its podium.

      Previn , a prolific film composer conducted them countless times

        • “Previn was a normal classical music conductor in the first place.”

          What normal classical music conducting post did he first hold before the start of his film composing career at MGM, age 17?

          • Robert: Exactly. Previn’s first “normal” classic conducting post was in 1967 in Houston, after more than 20 years with MGM.

        • Not in the first place, he wasn’t. His first film credit was in 1949. His early career was all about film scores, many of which he conducted. Classical music came significantly later.

        • Well, no, not quite. André Previn began his career as a studio musician in Los Angeles as a young man. He was also a noted jazz pianist and composed and arranged for film and other commercial projects, including a well-known Christmas recording with Julie Andrews from the 1960s. His conducting career developed from this — as arranger or composer, he also conducted is own work. Later, he made a deliberate decision to concentrate on a career as an orchestra conductor outside of the studio system. Most people know him from this part of his career. So he wasn’t really a “normal classical music conductor in the first place.” He was many other things first.

        • No, JB: “in the first place” Andre Previn was a Hollywood movie studio composer/arranger/conductor who worked on soundtracks for dozens of films – before he became “a normal classical music conductor”.

          • OK, I did not know that. But he surely made his name as a conductor with the regular repertoire first, at least. No serious orchestra would have hired him on the basis of a Hollywood reputation alone.

          • John, before commenting further about Previn, be sure to purchase his memoir “No minor Chords – My days in Hollywood” which you’ll probably find a very interesting – and funny – read. He especially addresses this question in that book.

      • Well said. A very sarcastic tone from NLB totally uncalled for.

        I can’t believe that film composers are still being treated as second class musicians, by some critics.

        Maestro Williams has not just been a film composer, he has written many concert works.

        • And Williams has conducted and recorded with the actual BSO, not “just” the Pops, including a CD with Gil Shaham that included two non-film works (and yeah the Schindler’s List music).

          At the risk of becoming a target for brickbats … some years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the very fine violinist Conrad Chow, who had just released a CD with many interesting first recordings. We talked about the lengths young composers have to go these days to hear their music performed, and he pointed out that there are some very talented musicians and composers who find themselves composing for — video games!

        • I tried, on the internet, to find recordings of JW’s ‘concert music’, which was not easy in the sea of clever but extremely vulgar kitsch, but eventually I found this:

          https://www.wwno.org/post/john-williams-concertos

          Here, he tries to be serious, harking back to early 20C German / Viennese widened-tonal music, with some ‘Russian’ touches here and there and while it is well-done, the music does not have any theme or motive with something like musical distinction. Obviously, his inspiration lies elsewhere – the film music for the masses who think he is a genius.

  • There were better film composers, including Korngold from Vienna. They were also luckier to write music for more interesting directors than George Lucas & overly sentimental Steven Spielberg.

    • While this isn’t an original Herr Doktor thought, I agree with someone else’s suggestion that John Williams is the luckiest man in composing history. Why? Because he never had to pay Wagner royalties for ripping off Wagner’s music his entire career. The first time I heard Gotterdammerung, I thought Wagner had been listening to far too much of John Williams’ work.

      • Two musicologists at the Music Faculty of the Texas Institute of Technology have discovered 3 letters by Wagner, sent to the Datenschutzbeauftragterverfassungsgericht, complaining about ‘Kunstplagiat’ by Hollywood film composers. Also there is an entry in Cosima’s diary where she says: ‘Today, at breakfast, R says he should have written film music like Mr Williams, so that the festival debt would have been easier to solve, and that he thinks about rewriting the end of the Ring with a quiet ending, impossible to imitate.’ (p. 264 footnote)

      • I don’t believe Wagner had to pay Liszt royalties for ripping off his son-in-law. Or Beethoven had to pay Mozart from ripping off his C minor piano concerto. Come on, every composer ‘rips off’ every other composer who came before him. Don’t be so righteous!

      • Those of you who are so busy tracking all of the composers JW supposedly stole from: Try scoring one of the films he did using only their music—the result will be nonsense. JW is a consummate craftsman with a distinctive style of his own and a shrewd understanding of film narrative. Dismissing his artistry is foolish and snobbish. There’s no one else like him in American music today—and the arrangements he has written for Anne Sophie-Mutter are superb.

        • The artistry needed for top film music is another one than for top concert music. JW is clearly a virtuoso orchestrator. But with orchestration alone one does not necessarily have good concert music.

    • Williams also worked with Robert Altman, Mark Rydell, Norman Jewison, Ronald Neame, Arthur Penn, Alfred Hitchcock, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra, but you’re right, what a hack.

      • Just to be clear, this apparently divisive remark was intended to be sarcastic. It’s ridiculous to tear into someone just because he happens to be successful. And if Williams ever apes another composer (in the “Star Wars” films, which are all pastiche anyway, I think it is intentional), he still somehow always manages to sound like himself. It would be useful if those who are so quick to denigrate his film work actually bothered to consider the breadth of his output, as opposed to bludgeoning him with his work for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, which at any rate has gone on to enrich the lives of millions — to say nothing of his own!

  • I don’t see why John Williams, a perfectly able musician, should not conduct the Vienna Phil for a couple of nights. They are a working orchestra, not the Heavenly Chorus.

    And there are a couple of things on this album that are much better than the insipid Schindler’s List violin solo, including Donnybrook Fair, which stands reasonable comparison to some Copeland.

    It’s the 21st century. The atonal screechers have largely been dropped. Film music has an important role in contemporary music. Some of the best of it may well survive, including in the concert hall, and some of that may well be by Williams.

    (I am hesitant about this subject, as I remember going to a concert many years ago, when film music was a relative rarity in concert halls, to a concert dedicated to some of the apparently best stuff from recent years. I recognised much of it, and had liked it very much in many cases — when it was doing its job, serving the film it was in, when it was accompanied with image and story and performance. Much of it was very slight when left on its own, unsupported).

    Anyway, I’ll bet it sells out to the point they consider adding a third. The Vienna Phil does not condescend to doing Pops, but their audience might want a lightened-up evening out.

    • There is a fundamental difference between film music and concert music. Film music is meant to support what is happening on the screen, and does not need any musically coherent form or narrative. It is NOT meant to be experienced on its own, on its own merits, it is something illustrating / accompanying something else in a subservient function (creating or supporting moods), and thus stands on a lower cultural level than concert music which has to be experienced on its own merits: coherence, form, narrative, expression, aesthetics, meaning. Film music is also different from opera where both stage action and music form an intergated whole: the stage shows the ‘outside’ of things, while the music expresses the ‘inside’. In opera, the music must possess coherence etc. in a purely musical sense to be able to express what is going on on the stage in a meaningful, satisfying way – no comparison with film music.

      Film music without the film must take-on all the requirements of concert music to rise to the level of the concert hall.

      • That’s not as black and white as you describe it. Also film music has themes and cues for opening, intermezzo and final scenes, that are very well in their conception ‘stand-alone’ or ‘absolute’ music. Particularly John William’s legendary themes. Or his own recent adaptations of his themes as the one linked above.

        • Where film music can stand on its own, it has acquired the concert standards.

          The different context of the concert hall also means that character is judged differently: what is acceptable under a movie, may suddenly sound tasteless or vulgar in the concert hall.

          For the developments of art music, what happens in the territory of film music is irrelevant because the context is totally different. If film composers want to be part of the serious music world, they have to meet the artistic standards which are still, more or less, upheld in the concert circuit.

          • You don’t know the films of Stanley Kubrick or Andrej Tarkovskij then apparently. Two of the most formative film creators when it comes to the use of music in film.

            Artistic Standards? Are you questioning the artistic standards of John WIlliams? Or any other of the Hollywood greats??
            You are connecting the quality of a genre to its performance location???

            “be part of the serious music world”.
            I have no idea what you are talking about.
            You should simply get more knowledgeable about the huge body of serious film scoring work of the last 100 years, before you voice silly judgements.

          • Sorry that reality is so disappointing for you…… Maybe you should read something about concert music and its aesthetics, tradition, and meaning as it developed over the ages. I would recommend Roger Scruton’s ‘The Aesthetics of Music’ which is a good starting point.

            https://www.amazon.co.uk/Aesthetics-Music-Roger-Scruton/dp/019816727X

            So, instead of throwing mud, you would do better to work a bit on yourself, also in terms of manners.

      • Korngold? Shostakovitch? Prokofiev? They all transferred film music to the concert hall. Besides, Williams is a conductor with plenty of experience. Ages ago I heard him in Boston with the BSO, and he did just fine. He also has written quite a bit of serious music. And is his music really worse than some of the stuff they play at their annual New Year’s concert?

        • Confusion of contexts… the ‘New Year’s Concert’ is not part of the regular performance culture but a one-off nice entertainment whim. And Shostakovich and Prkofiev reworked their film scores where necessary to get at the level of concert music.

      • Out of interest, how do view incidental music for theatre? I’ve often thought that the comparison between film music and incidental music is closer than comparing film music with opera or the concert hall. And plenty of fine composers have written incidental music that wouldn’t be played or recorded today without their name attached to it.

        • It seems to be obvious that incidental music for the theatre has to adapt to concert hall standards if it wants to be considered art music. Fauré’s beautiful suite for Maeterlinck’s play ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ comes to mind, which forms an entirely satisfying sequence of great music.

        • This won’t have him won a conductor’s reputation in the condert circuit. Whether someone has written a film score or not is entirely irrelevant for conducting….. There is not only a difference between film music and concert music, but also between writing music (of whatever kind) and conducting. They are really two different professions.

      • Of course movie music has function that is different from that of concert music, but that does not mean that the former is necessarily inferior in its musical quality compared to the latter. For example, ballet music is also supposed to accompany something that is visual, and nevertheless Stravinsky’s ‘Le sacre du printemps’ written as a ballet score not only “rise(s) to the level of the concert hall” but is arguably one of the greatest pieces of orchestral music written in the entire last century.

        • Where to begin? There is cheap ballet music which is merely offering a musical underpinning for the dancers’ doings. Then there is ballet music which has concert music qualities, Tchakovsky comes to mind. And then, there is ballet music which is conceived as concert music right from the beginning, like Debussy’s Jeux, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Sacre and Les Noces. These are top ‘ballet’ works, produced by impresario Diaghilev with his Ballets Russes, who wanted a ballet be a ‘total work of art’ with the three ingredients all on their individual top level, visually, ballettily, musically. Stravinsky made a suite of his Firebird music for the concert hall because the original does not work so well there; his other ballets became concert hall standards (in the theatre as a ballet they work less effectively because being to differentiated for the pit). The two mentioned French ballet works became concert pieces because they were written as such.

          • There is no evidence that Le sacre was originally written as anything other than a ballet music. You are simply making this up to fit into your “theory”.

      • There is a difference between film music and concert music, but that doesn’t mean that film music has no merit. Actually, I think a lot of “film music” concerts do themselves no favors, by serving up nothing but the most recognizable themes, in often kitschy arrangements. Even presenting the music with the films has its drawbacks. I would be very interested to hear concert performances of substantial suites, or even complete scores from some of the classic films, like “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Ben-Hur,” or even “The Empire Strikes Back.” I wish more orchestras had the guts just to switch off the projectors. “Star Wars” is always going to pack the house, whether they rent the film or not. Playing just the music would have the added benefit of really focusing a neophyte’s attention on the wonders of the orchestra. And that can’t be a bad thing.

    • Copland on film music:

      “the mixing of dialogue, music, and realistic sounds of all kinds must always remain problematical.

      “In view of these drawbacks to the full sounding out of his music, … the composer often hopes to be able to extract a viable concert suite from his film score.

      “There is a … tendency to believe that movie scores are not proper material for concert music.

      “The argument is that, separated from its visual justification, the music falls flat.”

      • Music for film is essential to the viewer, due to the atmosphere and the psychological thrill there is on the screen.
        Try to watch the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, put off the sound and play instead Boccherini’s Minuet in the background. I guarantee you a total different visual effect.
        Actually that’s precisely what Kubrick was experimenting with in Clockwork Orange, in order to undertone the savage brutality of some scenes.

        Would Wagner have written for the movies if he had lived today? He propably would, just think of how many film composers have used the Leitmotif and his use of the orchestra (especially the brass!)

        • No, Wagner would certainly not be tempted, not even with hughe sums of money. His idea of opera had nothing to do with the way music functions in movies. And he would have been much offended by the restrictions he would have been asked to adhere to.

          It is the film composers who, with their unwashed hands, eagerly plundered Wagner’s operas for ideas and trivialised them.

      • Perhaps Aaron Copland never heard Bernard Herrmann’s exceptional score for Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”, which embraces a most human heart
        litany of emotions from Time in Memoriam …This is not a criticism of Aaron
        Copland, the formidable ‘national’ acclaimed American composer, but a hint
        Copland might have slightly amended his quoted above comments a touch ~

    • It may not come as a surprise to you, but both concerts (with ticket prices up to 240€) have already been sold out for some time now.

      • It is not surprising, because the concerts will draw an audience which loves film music. Nothing wrong with that. Everybody has the right to amuse her/himself with the music she/he thinks will be enjoyable.

    • An ‘epic’ Hollywood Movie Film Score -on its own, Bernard Herrmann’s “North by
      Northwest”, which contains within its musical ‘margins’, remarkably creative and
      challenging string melodic & harmonic composition which once heard, and dare
      I say, heard Live, as February 15, 2019, in Symphony Center, by a loaded Chicago Symphony Orchestra on-stage “CSO Night at The Movie’s”, was a formidable near
      symphonic ‘poem’ for orchestra with Herrmann’s love theme going directly to any ‘orthodox’ classical music listener’s heart/memory of an achingly beautiful theme for a very long time, indeed . . . The general response of CSO colleagues was one
      of, ‘we can’t wait to play this score again! It’s marvellous!!’ (A former CSO/Solti
      member, and private in London 1st artist-pupil of Nathan Milstein of 3 & 1/2 years
      duration, hearing statements similar to the above CSO colleagues, warranted a ’10’ in musical terms ~ Add Cary Grant to the glorious Bernard Herrmann score
      plus Eva Marie Saint, in the Hitchcock Love scene’s, and one has a possible hint
      of Hollywood classic opera set on a train and atop the great Mt. Rushmore with
      The Four hand carved mountain Faces of Great American President’s looking on ~

      • Here it is:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2qZzRuIQuk

        No doubt, under a movie it is brilliantly effective film music. But if you listen to it without the movie, as in this suite, and imagine it being concert music, then it is very primitive music, with remarkable little musical substance, unsophisticated, superficial, kitschy – all effort is in the orchestration and its in-your-face effects. For instance, the so-called ‘love theme’ is a primitive attempt to imitate R Strauss in his weaker opera moments. Also there is a lot of bad imitation of Ravel’s ‘Rhapsodie Espagnole’ in the thing.

        This music is for either unsophisticated use under an exciting movie so that the audience won’t notice the flaws, or for unsophisticated concert audiences without any experience with the better kind of classical music. But it may be useful for newcomers to the art form, who will still have a long trajectory to go towards some basic appreciation and udnerstanding.

        I rest my case, as ventilated in this thread, that film music and concert music are really two very different genres with different standards, and obviously film music has lower musical standards due to its function.

    • The Johann Strauss Father and Son were the top “pops” composers of their day, and their Unterhaltungsmusik is is a VPO glory.

      • Yes, and what a difference in aesthetics, musicality, pudeur, refinement, and Schwung of the ‘light classical’ pieces of those days. This merely means that tastes have degenerated considerably since the Strausses.

    • As we know, cultural institutions – orchestras, opera houses, concert halls, museums – are there to liberate suppressed minorities and to support political programs which help to fight against authoritarian domination by dead white males from feudal times who have the impertinence to posthumously intervene in our enlightened, equalized times. Art in itself is nothing if it is not part of a political program, so we justly vindicate the intentions of the Soviet Union which cannot have been too bad.

  • Back in the 80s, I went to a showing of Koyaanisqatsi at the RFH, with Philip Glass conducting a live orchestra. Outside I ran into a friend. “Are you here to see Koyaanisqatsi?” “No. I’m here for the Philip Glass concert.” Same event, just two different perceptions of it. It seems that there might be two different perceptions of this event as well.

  • Well deserved. After all, mediocre conductors such as Maazel, Mehta, Dudamel have conducted the VPO. John Williams is better than all of them.

    • I can understand someone not having a high opinion of Maazel/ Mehta/ Dudamel… but I would want to compare Williams’ interpretations of Strauss, Beethoven, etc. against theirs before deciding who is the “better” conductor.

      • It’s a fair point Bruce – and remember, none of these great conductors ever really created something new (of published and lasting value anyway).

        Mr. Williams may not be Beethoven, but my goodness he’s been good at what he does. I will never forget the first time I saw Star Wars in a cinema as a kid. I was Wrecked – it was made 10 times better by that soundtrack, and if you think Princess Leia’s theme ain’t great music, well written then you must have a heart of granite.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2YfVKKB7v0

        This is the LA phil – under Mehta. So much better than the LSO version dare I say!

      • Personally, I prefer the great composer conductor of the Boston Pops and to these three. It’s absurd and snobbish to suggest that conducting R. Strauss badly is more elevated than conducting J. Strauss. The question is do Maazel, Mehta, Dudamel conduct Strauss and Beethoven better than other conductors who have stood in front of the VPO? I suggest you give the Maazel Beethoven symphonies cycle with the Cleveland Orchestra a hearing.

  • The only reason a woman doesn’t conduct is that the men might swoon 🙂 John Williams is a proven entity and perfectly decent conductor, so why shouldn’t he wield his baton in front of the VPO. If they don’t follow his tempo, which I doubt, he could always switch it for a lightsabre. Anyhow, for the VPO this probably counts as a ‘widening participation’ event of some kind.

  • I urge you to listen to a podcast entitled “The Baton,” in which an avid amateur is working his way through ALL of John Williams’ scores. You can really hear an appreciate the craft (perhaps not always the invention) of his scores. I personally find his music extremely enjoyable to listen to. He really knows how to write an earworm and actually use it and develop it throughout a film.

  • The orchestra for the DG recording is listed as The Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles. Studio musicians hired on a per service basis, I assume? It also has the Hollywood studio sound which is a good bit different than most classical orchestra recordings, and a bit more removed from the sound of a live performance. (The enhanced levels for the harp and celesta are examples.) This studio sound is becoming the norm for people’s ears. I wonder how it might affect our tastes for live orchestras.

    • Your argument is moot, considering that the music is composed for the studio in its conception and realisation, and there is nothing wring with that. But John Williams also writes concert music. It is just not as well known, since it addresses a much smaller audience, than the blockbuster movie audience.

  • Well deserved for Williams! I had tickets for last years cancelled performance. Unfortunately I can’t this time :((
    I think E.T. will sound very special with the VPO.

    • There are plans for a recording.

      Franz and Eschenbach have previously conducted bits by Williams with the Vienna Phil (at Schönbrunn), including Star Wars and Harry Potter.

  • People are forgetting John Williams’ years with the Boston Pops, which plays a fair amount of light classical music. So he does have experience in this line.

  • To me most of the program with John Williams’ music is far better music than most of the soapy sugary stuff which the VPO plays traditionally in their New Years concert. Some people think they are riding high horses, even if they are donkeys. (somebody used the word “serious music” in contrast to film music. wtf?)

    • We know that Brahms, one of the most strict and classicist composers of the day, notorious for his northern German serious music, loved the Strauss repertoire, was friends with Str Junior (visited him regularly and attended Str’s parties) and envied him for writing the rightly famous waltzes. He was inspired by the Strausses when he wrote his own Liebesliederwaltzer. So, for people who are under the impression that John WIlliams’ music has some really musical qualities, these superb light things can only be ‘soapy sugery stuff’, in the way a peasant, used to his barn, looks with contempt to a Louis XVI chaise longue in a salon.

      • You only come across as someone who does not like film music from a theoretical point of view, but you actually do not know the body of work it entails, have not studied many scores of it. Your attempts by dictum to denigrate film music as lower standing than “serious music” are just silly, because you obviously do not look at the music itself nor have substantial knowledge about it, obviously.
        Could it be that you have a personal grudge against the film business, because you were once rejected by it?

  • During Williams’ Boston Pops years, we also did a lot of serious, mainstream classical pieces, such as movements from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, Walter Piston’s 6th Symphony and The Incredible Flutist, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.2, Michael Torke’s Javelin, and much more.

    Personally, I believe that Piston was a tremendous influence on Williams’ compositional style.

  • “The melody that seemed so apt and touching on the screen sounds banal or even fake in the concert hall – witness the melodies given to Hedwig’s flight by Williams, so brilliantly orchestrated that you notice their emptiness only when your ears are turned fully upon them.”

    And:

    “….. film scores seem not to survive for long outside the context created by the original screen-play.”

    “In film the score is subservient to the action, can survive only because it adds what the action leaves out, and then survives only as a kind of after image, the memory of something that has vanished over the horizon of perception.”

    “Perhaps we should be grateful to John Williams and Howard Shore for showing us that it can still be done – that we can still use the tonal language to create music that resonates in the hearts of ordinary people.”

    http://www.futuresymphony.org/redeeming-film-music/

  • There is one reason, and one reason only to play the music of John Williams and have him on the podium: MONEY. Most people who would never go to a concert of the Wiener Philharmoniker to listen to a Strauss Tondichtung would sit quietly at a concert that features the film music of John Williams and his [bland] concert music (this is worrying but not the point of this comment).

    The Wiener Philharmoniker is not a rich orchestra. They don’t receive a big public subsidy, and they survive only because of the income from the regular season, income from touring, the New Year Concert, and because all musicians receive a regular salary as members of the Wiener Staatsoperorchester.

    • There are publishers who publish cheap nonsense novels, selfhelp books, recipe books, travel guides etc. etc. in short: what many people, for some reason, seem to need. And the profit they make is then invested in true literature and poetry, which is their raison d’être, but which has a much smaller audience and thus is not a big profit maker. Maybe we have to see orchestras in the same way: they lower their standards now and then to serve more people with less developed tastes, to be able to produce the more developed music. So, maybe the VPO playing JW is supporting the better music.

  • ‘Listening to a piece by John Williams is like unintentionally witnessing someone performing an act of personal hygiene.’ (Oscar Wilde)

    • This is disgustingly mean and nasty, and connecting the name of a brilliant writer to it makes it even meaner and nastier still.

  • As noted by many here, John Williams is exceptionally good at what he does best which is film music. It is also clear to me that most unprejudiced listeners would get more pleasure from listening to best film music than they would from listening to mediocre music of any other kind.

  • As correctly and repeatedly pointed out by JB above here (though phrased slightly differently each time), “musical standards” for film music are different from, and objectively lower than, those for concert music, mostly because the former plays supporting role while the latter is supposed to stand on its own. However, true artistic achievement only happens when a piece rises far above mere “standards” in all kinds of music, just like in other arts. That is what best scores by JW do, which is why they often sound good on their own in concert halls, even in comparison with “legitimate” concert music if that latter does not do more than merely meet its applicable “standards”.

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