John Williams turns 90 years old on Feb. 8. And the world’s most famous film composer shows no signs of slowing down.
The five-time Oscar winner, creator of many of the most well-known movie themes of all time — everything from “Jaws” and “Star Wars” to “E.T.” and “Harry Potter” — is finishing work on two new film scores and, COVID permitting, plans to conduct concerts with at least five orchestras between April and November.
Commemorating Williams’ nonagenarian status is the release of “John Williams: The Berlin Concert,” a two-disc Deutsche Grammophon set recorded during the composer’s Oct. 14-16 concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic.
The 93-minute collection includes many of Williams’ familiar signature tunes — “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jurassic Park,” “Superman” — plus a few less familiar pieces, including his theme for “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and his moving, non-film “Elegy for Cello and Orchestra.”
The Berlin album might be considered a companion piece for last year’s “John Williams: Live in Vienna” set, another instance of the American composer conducting one of Europe’s most renowned orchestras. That one includes music not on the Berlin album, including music from “Jaws,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Hook.” Williams will return to Vienna for birthday concerts on March 12 and 13.
Already a Kennedy Center Honors recipient, he will revisit that Washington landmark on June 23 for what the National Symphony Orchestra is billing as a “90th birthday gala concert” featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and longtime filmmaking partner Steven Spielberg.
Williams was unavailable for this story as he is finishing work on the score for Spielberg’s next film, “The Fabelmans,” expected to record next month in Los Angeles. The film, inspired by Spielberg’s own childhood in Arizona, is slated for a Nov. 23 release.
“Fabelmans” marks their 29th film collaboration since “The Sugarland Express,” their first, in 1974. Seventeen of Williams’ 52 Oscar nominations (an all-time record for scoring) are for Spielberg films, including three of his five wins (“Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Schindler”).
Williams is also working on the score for the fifth “Indiana Jones” movie, slated for release in mid-2023. And he continues to write music for the concert hall: last year, with Mutter, he debuted his second violin concerto.
Younger composers routinely cite Williams as a role model, not just for his classic scores but for his compositional prowess (as in the modernist complexity of a score like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and his knack for finding the right dramatic approach for every story (minimalism for “A.I.,” jazz saxophone for “Catch Me If You Can,” Japanese colors for “Memoirs of a Geisha”).
In the aftermath of his popular success with 1977’s “Star Wars,” Williams began to conduct in public, eventually making film music a staple of pops concerts. And while Henry Mancini had begun this in the 1960s, it was Williams who became a kind of rock star on the concert stage, with tens of thousands of fans waving plastic lightsabers in time to the music at the Hollywood Bowl and beyond.
Composer David Newman, who often conducts film music in live concert settings, cites Williams’ 14-year tenure as music director for the Boston Pops (1980-93) as the launching pad that eventually led to today’s popular — and, for orchestras, lucrative — live-to-film concert performances.
“John convinced a fairly conservative institution to play more and more film music,” Newman points out. World-class orchestras like those in Berlin and Vienna now playing movie music in concert, he adds, “would have been unthinkable without John’s persistence in presenting not just his own music, but the whole world of film music.”
Williams’ longevity in the business surprises even his closest colleagues. He has been writing music for films and TV since 1958, an unprecedented six-decade run. That’s Williams’ jazz piano in the original “Peter Gunn” sessions for Mancini, recorded just as he was starting his own career as a composer but still moonlighting as a top keyboard player for other composers including Alfred Newman, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.
As Spielberg put it when he presented Williams with the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award: “Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes. There is no Force. Dinosaurs do not walk the earth. We do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe. John, you breathe belief into every film we have made.”