News your connection to The Boston Globe

John Williams scores again

2005 produces two more Oscar nominations

Since 1958, John Williams has composed 101 film scores, if you count three television movies. Even if you don't, that's a lot of notes to put down onto paper.

The year 2005 was a very productive one for the 72-year-old composer and conductor laureate of the Boston Pops. He wrote strongly contrasting scores to four movies: ''Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," ''War of the Worlds," ''Memoirs of a Geisha," and ''Munich." The last two films have been nominated this year for Oscars in the category for original score, so Williams is competing against himself; these nominations bring his total number of Oscar nods to 45, tying the record for best-score nominations set by his mentor, Alfred Newman. Williams is now the second-most-nominated person ever, after Walt Disney (with 59).

Williams has been even busier in a few previous years; in 1966 he composed six scores, and in 1972 and 1973 five each. But it's hard to imagine that ''Not With My Wife, You Don't!" asked as much of him as ''Memoirs of a Geisha" or that ''The Poseidon Adventure" demanded what ''Munich" did.

''Revenge of the Sith" and ''War of the Worlds" found Williams working in veins he has mined before. The score to ''Sith" provided a fitting climax to the score Williams had begun weaving 28 years before with the original ''Star Wars." On a Wagnerian scale, he reinvented the genre of the heroic film score.

''War of the Worlds" found him at another familiar task: trying to hold together a dreadful film that flies off in all directions and trying to give it an emotional resonance that the chases and explosions lack. Williams's score couldn't save the film, but to his credit, he didn't fall back on sheer decibels to obliterate the senses the way the rest of the soundtrack did, nor did he repeat his themes anywhere near as often as the intolerable Dakota Fanning screamed.

Both ''Munich" and ''Memoirs of a Geisha" show Williams in introspective form, as did ''Born on the Fourth of July," ''JFK," ''Schindler's List," and ''Angela's Ashes." Because of its subject matter, ''Munich" recalls ''Schindler's List" the most. That film boasted Itzhak Perlman's solo violin playing. The soloists in ''Munich" are less starry, but often just as compelling: pianist Gloria Cheng, cellist Steve Erdody, oboist John Ellis, and guitarist Adam Del Monte. Vocalist Lisbeth Scott, who appeared on the soundtracks of ''The Passion of the Christ" and ''The Chronicles of Narnia," sings in a passionate Middle Eastern timbre and style in the melismatic lamentation Williams has composed for the opening track, ''Munich, 1972." Unfortunately, the soundtrack album does not identify or print the lyrics she is singing.

The string sections of the studio orchestra also deserve star billing in ''Munich," because Williams entrusts so much to them. They dominate his sumptuous setting of the Israeli national anthem ''Hatikvah" (''The Hope"), the melody of which is derived from ''The Moldau" by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. And they carry much of the message in ''A Prayer for Peace." In the soundtrack album notes, director Steven Spielberg calls this work ''the quintessential movement of John's score" and says it ''embraces the history of this tragedy while deeply honoring the memory of the members of the Israeli team who were murdered on September 6, 1972."

Without going as far as composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman did in ''The Death of Klinghoffer" or risking the kind of controversy that opera generated, Williams's score does suggest that the tragedies in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians do not lie only on one side. The theme for the principal character, Avner, is ambivalent, but it turns into a lament, and the lament is for all human possibilities lost in the endless cycle of terrorism and reprisal.

Dark and stirring as ''Munich" is, ''Memoirs of a Geisha" stands as one of Williams's most memorable scores. It reunites him with Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who played on the soundtrack of ''Seven Years in Tibet" (1997).

To Ma, he gives the gorgeous melody he devised to characterize the heroine Sayuri. (Ma and Williams are scheduled to appear on ''The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" tomorrow night, and this theme would be the logical choice for them to play.) To Perlman goes ''The Chairman's Waltz," music associated with Sayuri's unattainable antagonist.

Williams's music is transparent, evocative, and subtle, and much of it is colored by authentic Japanese timbres, musical gestures, and instruments (the lute-like koto and the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute). Of course, like everything connected with this venture, beginning with the novel written by an American in Brookline, the score is a Westernized assimilation of and commentary on traditional Japanese music. But it's worth remembering that bridging the gap between Japanese and Western music was a goal of some Japanese musicians even as early as the period of the story (before World War II), and Williams's score to ''Memoirs of a Geisha" is more than Hollywood music with a few touches of local color (just as Puccini's ''Madama Butterfly" is more than an Italian opera with a few touches of Asian atmosphere).

Williams's old friend and colleague Seiji Ozawa contributed some suggestions about Japanese music, instruments, and performers, but the real authenticity comes from the composer, who knows how to look at an image, how to achieve empathy with a feeling, and how to translate them into shimmering sound.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives