Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart talks John Williams’ legacy before Hearst Greek Theatre concert

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Ask any number of cinephiles to name the greatest filmmaker of all time, and hear infinite variations of “give me a minute” in return. The same might apply for actors, cinematographers and so on. But asking about the greatest film composer is a much easier task. The answer, inevitably, is John Williams.

It certainly is for Keith Lockhart, Williams’ successor as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, the 133-year-old offshoot of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “John’s music is some of the really rare film music that can be excerpted without the context of the movie around it and still be extraordinarily moving and coherent,” Lockhart said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

It’s a statement that needs little justification beyond Williams’ best-known scores. The chugging, creeping theme from “Jaws” endures as the ultimate sonic representation of fear, while Williams’ compositions for “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” demand the emotional investment of its listeners.  

Of course, Williams’ most iconic work — arguably the best film scores of all time — lies with the “Star Wars” franchise. Having scored every film in the main saga, Williams’ operatic pathos is as integral to the franchise as the hum of a lightsaber or the scream of a TIE fighter.

The colossal legacy of Williams’ work isn’t lost on Lockhart, who will be bringing the Boston Pops to the Hearst Greek Theatre on April 21 for a night of tribute to his famed predecessor. The show will be based on the Boston Pops’ recent album Lights, Camera…Music! Six Decades of John Williams, which was recorded in honor of Williams’ 86th birthday.

With both the album and its accompanying West Coast tour, Lockhart had bigger ambitions than merely repackaging the “Star Wars” opening fanfare. Given Williams’ versatility, it would be a disservice to the composer to reduce him to his most legendary composition alone.

“One thing that is special about John as a film composer is the chameleonlike way in which he can move us into different spaces in terms of music and emotion,” Lockhart said. Ever adaptable, Williams composed the somber violin melodies of “Schindler’s List” and the lush, sweeping themes of “Jurassic Park,” both of which released in 1993.

For Lockhart, Williams’ versatility and the sheer breadth of his discography became conducive for highlighting the hidden gems of his career, including the darkly mischievous “Devil’s Dance” from “The Witches of Eastwick” and the warmly ebullient overture from “Heidi.” But Lockhart said his favorite tune from the upcoming show is a deep cut from “E.T.” called “Stargazers.”

“That’s one of the things I used to tell people to pay careful attention to, because you’ll rarely ever hear anything more beautiful,” he said of the tune. The song’s twinkling harp runs evoke the quiet beauty of craning one’s neck up at a clear night sky, reflecting on what wonders lie beyond. “That, I just think, is one of the most beautiful impressionist works that I’ve ever heard come out of a film score.”

Of course, the Boston Pops’ stop at the Greek Theatre won’t be without the usual Williams mainstays, such as themes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the “Harry Potter” series — fitting, for an orchestra that has played well-known hits since its inception.

Winslow Townson / Courtesy

Winslow Townson / Courtesy

Established in 1885 as a secondary arm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Pops was only meant to extend the former’s season, giving its players more weeks to perform. Since then, the Pops has adopted a unique identity as an orchestra for the people, making efforts to emphasize the accessibility of classical music.

Under legendary conductor Arthur Fiedler’s tenure, this meant playing Broadway and the Beatles in equal measure, and performing free annual Fourth of July concerts beside Boston’s Charles River. Williams added his repertoire of beloved film scores when he succeeded Fiedler, and now Lockhart continues the tradition of performing “music that (people) could have come into the hall humming.”

With this in mind, the works of John Williams exist in a uniquely transitional period for film scores, as contemporary works increasingly stray from Williams’ hypermelodic style. It’s a style being eclipsed by the atmospherics of composers such as Jóhann Jóhannsson and Mica Levi. Good luck humming the intro track from Junkie XL’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” score, which consists largely of propulsive percussion.

“There are other great composers who know how to write for orchestra of more modern stuff, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, (Hans) Zimmer, all those people are valid,” Lockhart said. “But generally speaking, film scoring is fragmenting into lots of different modes of expression.”

But amid the contemporary fragmentation of film scoring, one gets the sense that Williams’ six-decade career will continue to inspire filmmakers and audiences alike. Lockhart said that such an illustrious career earns Williams a universality that no living composer can claim.

And given the longevity of Williams’ career, at any given moment, someone of Williams’ age might have “The Raiders March” stuck in their head while their grandchildren might be humming “Rey’s Theme” as they swing a plastic lightsaber. Williams’ music hardly feels dated, and it’s difficult to imagine that it will anytime soon.

The Boston Pops Orchestra will perform “Lights, Camera…Music! Six Decades of John WIlliams” at the Greek Theatre on April 21.

Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].