Web_Banner_BridgeALICO (1).png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Encore: Composer John Williams and cellist Yo-Yo Ma assemble 'A Gathering of Friends'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

John Williams has written so many of the movie scores that have gotten stuck in your head over the years...

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "STAR WARS (MAIN TITLE)")

KELLY: ...Like the theme to "Star Wars" and "Jaws"...

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "MAIN TITLE (THEME FROM JAWS)")

KELLY: ...And "Harry Potter."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "HEDWIG'S THEME")

KELLY: That's just to name a few. And over the years, he has also developed many friendships with the musicians he works with, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

YO-YO MA: Hello.

JOHN WILLIAMS: Oh, my dear. Oh.

MA: Ludwig, Ludwig.

WILLIAMS: Angel, we need a cello here today.

MA: You do?

WILLIAMS: Yes, we do.

MA: Well, there's a cello attached to me.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) I know.

KELLY: John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma first met about 40 years ago. Williams was conductor of the Boston Pops, and Ma was a rising star soloist.

WILLIAMS: We began to be friendly and share a meal here and there and formed a friendship which is one of the treasures of my life, certainly.

KELLY: Their new album together is called "A Gathering Of Friends," released just after John Williams' 90th birthday. It highlights some of his film scores as well as works Williams wrote specifically for his friend, like his "Concerto For Cello And Orchestra."

MA: And when you wrote the concerto, John, I remember we spent many a day talking about the piece but having conversations.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA")

KELLY: When we say you wrote it for Yo-Yo to play, was there something, John, that you could hear him doing with it that you weren't sure another cellist would do?

WILLIAMS: I think that's probably true. He's in a register that is probably unheard of in the cello repertoire.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA")

WILLIAMS: The first performance of it was in 1993, and I think it went pretty well. But I became more interested in it as I heard Yo-Yo play it as it then was and began to make some revisions over the years, which we did together and performed it again here and there. And the piece grew.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA")

WILLIAMS: I don't think anyone has ever played the cello this way. I've never heard cello playing like this. It's quite - it's amazing.

MA: John has a great capacity to make me blush.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: No, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA PERFORMANCE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA")

KELLY: So this is interesting because, if we look at some of the other music presented here, the film music, this is not the big, triumphant sci-fi movies that a lot of people know you for, John. These are big, weighty historical dramas, including "Schindler's List."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THEME FROM SCHINDLER'S LIST")

KELLY: And I have a question to each of you about that and the challenge of writing music to try to capture the Holocaust in due justice and respect. And, Yo-Yo, to you the question of how do you play that and try to express that?

WILLIAMS: Well, of course, the Holocaust is certainly beyond me. But in the film, I - well, it's a challenge with every film in the sense that we really have to make the assumption that people are going to hear this only once during the two hours of the film and that that is their musical experience and probably need to find some expression that is very direct and very honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THEME FROM SCHINDLER'S LIST")

WILLIAMS: These simple notes, this very accessible tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THEME FROM SCHINDLER'S LIST")

KELLY: That's the thing - is that it is so accessible. You're writing about the most awful thing ever, and the music - there's still a melody in there.

WILLIAMS: I can only hope that it rose to the level that it needed to for such a really brilliant film. It was something quite miraculous about the experience, all of it.

MA: Which is one of the things, I think, that is remarkable, having done some recording with John. To film music, you know, usually they have the film clip going for an exact number of seconds. And John, without an earpiece or anything, would be conducting the orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THEME FROM SCHINDLER'S LIST")

MA: And always, to the nanosecond, the phrase ends exactly where it needed to.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THEME FROM SCHINDLER'S LIST")

MA: The other part, Mary Louise, when you're talking about the simplicity of things - I think that's where the artistry comes in - is that you could express the most poignant feelings through simplicity.

WILLIAMS: On a sort of mechanical level, I would have to say that anything, at least in my case, that might appear to be simple was the result of pretty much very, very hard work and constantly changing one note or one note value. And as I'm composing, it's amazing, Yo-Yo, how I will transpose as I'm just trying to create the tune, trying different keys. So it's - what may appear to be very simple is usually the result of some very, very hard work.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE")

KELLY: One other work to ask about, and this is "With Malice Toward None" from the biopic "Lincoln."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE")

KELLY: It's a nod to Lincoln's second inaugural address - with malice toward none, with charity toward all. He was encouraging us to bind up our nation's wounds. He was talking about the Civil War. But I can imagine it feels like a pretty timely moment to put this out into the world again.

WILLIAMS: Doesn't it? Yeah.

KELLY: Were you intentionally doing so?

WILLIAMS: I don't think intentionally at all. But there again was a challenge of how to accompany it. And I tried various Appalachian period pieces from the time, and nothing seemed to satisfy, at least me. I finally was able to write the little air that Yo-Yo now plays on the cello.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE")

WILLIAMS: A thrill for me to be - to hear him do it. I think, Yo-Yo, your voice in the beginning of that thing is so quintessentially American, may I say.

MA: Well, of course, because I'm an immigrant.

WILLIAMS: So am I.

MA: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: Aren't we all?

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE")

MA: Mary Louise, do you hear how modest he is? Every time I try and say something really nice about him, he turns it around.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

MA: That's one of the essential things you need to know about John Williams.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) I should have been a baseball pitcher.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Never know what's coming.

KELLY: It's so interesting hearing the two of you talk to each other but also about each other. There's so many years there of respect and hard work and friendship. It's lovely.

WILLIAMS: A lot of years but not enough - more to come.

MA: There's a lot of love there.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

KELLY: Well, I guess that brings me to the last thing I want to say. And this is to you, John. And it is happy birthday. Happy...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) OK.

KELLY: ...Ninetieth.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much. I'm told that I should be counting in Celsius, which makes me 32.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: That sounds like a good idea.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

KELLY: Well, may there be many more to come.

WILLIAMS: Thank you both very much.

KELLY: And here's to friendship and to making beautiful music for many, many years.

WILLIAMS: What a joy to be with you both.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "A PRAYER FOR PEACE FROM MUNICH")

KELLY: That was composer and conductor John Williams and cellist Yo-Yo Ma speaking with me this past spring about their album "A Gathering Of Friends." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.