Conductor Keith Lockhart had big shoes to fill when he stepped in as leader of the Boston Pops in 1995, following in the footsteps of none other than John Williams, who conducted the Pops from 1980 until his retirement in 1993. In his time with the Pops, Lockhart has become renowned in his own right, releasing five albums with the orchestra, performing in specials featuring Sting and John Meyer, and conducting the annual nationally broadcast Fireworks Spectacular on July 4. Now, he’s bringing the Pops west, with a stop at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on April 13, to perform the music of his predecessor, having celebrated Williams’ 85th birthday season in 2017.
VCReporter: Jurassic Park, E.T., Jaws, Star Wars — there’s so much to consider when you’re thinking of making a John Williams program. How do you choose what you’re going to play?
Keith Lockhart: To go through that 105-film legacy is quite an adventure. This includes film credits that date back into the 1950s. Of the decades in which there have been recorded sound with films, he has film credits in seven of the nine. We really wanted to find a way to create a balance between familiar moments for people — and certainly there is music on this program from Jaws and from E.T. and from Harry Potter, from Raiders of the Lost Ark and, of course, from the Star Wars franchise. But on top of that, we wanted to present some really cool John Williams moments [where] [the audience] might know the movie but didn’t know that he actually wrote the score. A little example is that in the 1970s, before he met Stephen Spielberg and that wonderful artistic collaboration started, he was the master of the disaster film. He wrote the scores for The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, which are not what we think of as John Williams’s scores.
What makes his scores so memorable?
At the end of the day, John is a great composer, one of the great living composers who just happens to have picked films as his medium, so therefore his music is really good. There are a lot of film composers who are very effective, but if you take their film away, it doesn’t stand on its own. John’s compositional skills are so great, and the messaging and emotional content are so clear, that it’s the kind of film music you can really do a great concert around without film support. I think that’s one of the things. One of the other things that strikes me about John is how incredibly versatile he is. Everybody has their favorite John Williams score, and a lot of people automatically go to Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, that kind of bombastic adventure, or Jurrassic Park; but this is also the man who has written glorious film scores for children, E.T. and the Harry Potter series; Hook, which is one of my favorites; and has also written things that are much more contemplative, much more serious: Schindler’s List, Memoirs of a Geisha. I think it’s just amazing, when you put all of these things next to each other, how many different compositional souls he can inhabit.
Can you describe for me how his music evolved from those early works to what we get now in modern movies?
As extraordinary a talent [as] the early film scores demonstrate, I think part of it is his maturity that any of us have if we do the same thing and master our craft over a long period of time. His tool box has increased mightily over that period of time. It’s also the kind of movies he’s scored. When he was writing in the 1950s it’s some kind of film noir/jazz sort of thing, but also he did a lot of TV scoring. He did one of the Gidget/Beach Blanket Bingo kind of films. You can go a lot deeper when you’re writing the score to Schindler’s List than you can with Beach Blanket Bingo.
I never thought I’d hear those two films in the same sentence.
He also wrote the score for the pilot of Gilligan’s Island but didn’t end up writing for the show.
You’ve conducted live scores of films he’s scored. How big a challenge is that to perform the score alongside the movie as it’s rolling behind you?
It’s become kind of a phenomenon over the last few years. It is extremely hard to do well. You’ve got to re-create the music and make it fit against the film — and the film will not slow down or speed up for you, so it’s very exciting. It’s one of those things, when you do a two-hour film, it’s absolutely exhausting. Raiders of the Lost Ark is very difficult because when you think of the big chase theme, the fight, they steal the thing and then they’re in the convoy, he’s climbing over the top of the trucks, that’s all one 20-minute cue of increasingly fast and more frenetic music that you have to somehow keep together with what’s going on. I had a player in a foreign orchestra that doesn’t do a lot of this stuff who said, “This is kind of like a video game for conductor and orchestra” because, normally, conducting is a give-and-take kind of thing. Sure, you’re controlling the overall thing, but you let people have their head, you let them take a little more time, you accommodate the rest of the orchestra with where the solo voice wants to play theirs . . . its communication. In this case, it’s stay exactly with me all the time.
Give me an idea of what people can expect coming up from the show in Thousand Oaks.
I think they can expect an orchestra that knows John Williams’ music really well, inside and out, as it’s been an essential part of our repertoire for close to 40 years now. Presented the way the Pops likes to present concerts in a really user-friendly way, where I try to engage the audience a little bit. We talk a little bit about these pieces and their relevance in John’s career, and also just make a whole lot of great music, powerfully packed, wonderful musical moments. It’s a great reason for us to return out to the West Coast.
Any accompaniment with film clips?
No, it’s so hard to be able to bring the video environment. Different places have different technical requirements. We do some film clips in symphony hall, but I take this as a great opportunity to focus on the music in a way separated from the image.
The Boston Pops Performs the Music of John Williams on Friday, April 13, at 8 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Fred Kavli Theatre, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For more information, call 449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.