Tuesday, February 1, 2011

John Williams

John Williams aged  7 John Christopher Williams was born in Melbourne, Australia on 24th April 1941. His father, Leonard Williams, had emigrated to Australia from London in the late 1930s, where he met his wife, Malaan, through a common love of jazz music and political activism. Len was a respected jazz guitarist whose interests had slowly turned towards the classical repertoire, and when John was four years old, he received his first guitar from his father, although John insists that proper tuition did not start for another two or three years. Because of his new-found love for classical technique, Len refused to allow John to dabble in more free-form styles of playing, a fact often regretted by the virtuoso in later life.
In 1952, the family returned to England. Len wanted to set up a guitar school (which he did, with great success: The Spanish Guitar Centre continues his work today, under the guidance of Barry Mason). It's worth noting that Len Williams' later years were devoted to setting up the Looe Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall: depending on whom you speak to, Len Williams is most famous for: being the father of a famous guitarist, establishing the London Guitar Centre, or his work with Woolly Monkeys. Few people can manage being famous for one thing in one lifetime, but for three? He also had an ulterior motive: recognising his young son's talent, he wanted him to study with the only the best teachers. This was not an option in Australia, and through a friendship with Terry Usher, they met Andres Segovia during a visit to London. The "creator of the modern classical guitar" was impressed with the 11-year-old and arranged for him to attend his summer school at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana di Siena in Italy. The young prodigy returned annually until 1959.
The first of John Williams' successes came when, at the request of his fellow students, he received the unprecedented honour of giving the first complete solo recital by a student of any instrument in 1955.
While not in Sienna, he attended the Royal College of Music in London from 1956 to 1959, where he studied piano and music theory. He didn't study guitar simply because, like most other musical colleges and conservatoires at that time, the RCM didn't provide a Guitar curriculum! Shortly after his graduation, however, he was invited to run the newly-created Guitar department. The College was evidently getting prepared for the onslaught of musicians who'd want to emulate their recent alumnus! He remained in the post until 1973, when his place was taken by his former student Carlos Bonnell. Williams has maintained a relationship with the College throughout the years and remains a Visiting Professor, including to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
Stephen Dodgson, lecturer in Harmony at the College, was to continue a professional association with his erstwhile pupil for many years as arranger and advisor, and his Second Guitar Concerto was written in 1971 at Williams' commission, and is dedicated to him.
John Williams aged 16 Williams made his professional debut at the Wigmore Hall in London on 6th November 1958, five months shy of his 18th birthday and completing his formal musical education.
The programme mirrored the contents of his first two record albums, recorded at that time, and released in early 1959. He signed to the prestigious Ibbs & Tillett Agency (which later became part of the Harold Holt Organisation, now Askonas Holt), with whom he has remained throughout his career.
Even then, he had a reputation to live up to, as the concert bill included the now famous quote (at least with regard to the first sentence) from Maestro Segovia:
A prince of the guitar has arrived in the musical world.
God has laid a finger on his brow, and it will not be long before his name becomes a byword in England and abroad, thus contributing to the spiritual domain of his race. I hail this young artist on the occasion of his first public performance, and make the heartfelt wish that success, like his shadow, may accompany him everywhere.
Of his performance, the London Times had to say:
... Already he has a remarkably well-developed technique; this was particularly evident in a transcription of three movements from a Bach cello suite, [No.3, trans. J.W. Duarte] where every detail was perfectly in place, and to his control he added most musical and stylish phrasing and tone-colouring. Nervousness may well have been responsible for a few over-stressed notes which obtruded from his otherwise shapely line in Weiss's well-known A-minor suite and inevitable artistic immaturity was no doubt the explanation of the unstylish rubato he frequently allowed himslf in Sor's Variations on a Theme of Mozart. [...] He is plainly an accomplished, serious-minded young artist whose future development can be watched with great interest.
John Williams in 1966 Successful debuts followed in Paris (1959), Madrid (1961) and in 1962 he had the rare privilege for a Western musician to tour the Soviet Union. Wherever he played, he was greeted with adulation.
His first UK appearance upon his return, again at the Wigmore Hall, was hailed as a major event, the Times stating: What has emerged first and foremost was the extent to which Mr Williams has strengthened his technique since we last heard him on this platform. He can now boast a very controlled agility, which served him admirably from viewpoints of rhythmic poise in a suite by Bach and and two sonatas by by Scarlatti. ... His concluding romantic group by Villa-Lobos, Turina, Ponce and Grandaos was also treated with sympathetic solicitude, but all this later music he still tends to interpret too inexpansively in terms of black and white instead of enjoying the flexibility and wider range of expressive colour for which it cries out.
After two further successful recordings, 1963 saw his debut Japanese and North American tours, during which he was offered a recording contract with CBS Records (now Sony Classical), the first release, unimaginatively entitled CBS Presents John Williams, being issued in 1964. Williams has since averaged at least one new recording each year for the label, although some less classicallly-oriented repertoire has been issued by others. Until the mid-seventies, most recording sessions were conducted in New York, under the watchful eye of CBS Senior Producer Paul Myers.
In 1964 he married for the first time, though this regrettably ended in divorce in 1969. His daughter Kate, born in 1965, is now a jazz pianist: see her own web site for further information.
John Williams was one of several high-profile young classical solosists trying to make careers during the sixties, very much against the counter-culture norm for their peers. This group, including Isaac Perlman, Fou Ts'ong, Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashekanzy, Jacqueline du Pré, all based in London, had a tendency to congregate both socially and professionally, to the extent that Williams and du Pré were the official witnesses at Fou Ts'ong's wedding (of course, Jacqueline and Daniel Barenbiom were themselves famously married by the end of the decade).
One of the fruits of these friendships was John Williams' guest appearances on one of Jacqueline du Pré's first recordings in 1963, playing de Falla's Jota from Suite Española. Later collaborations included Daniel Barenboim conducting various orchestras in concerto performances, including on record, and an album of duets with Itzak Perlman.
He also made appearances with Wilfred Brown (Tenor, also on record), the London String Quartet and other artists, and eventually took Julian Bream's place in frequent appearances with Alan Loveday (violin) and Amarylis Fleming (cello). He was already showing his preference for finding opportunities and repertoire to play with others, rather than solo recitals.
John Williams has always spent a considerable amount of energy on expanding his repertoire beyond what Segovia had established, and an increasing interest in modern music led him to performing at the Premiere of Michael Tippett's King Priam in 1963, and later being involved in Pierre Boulez's ambitious recording of Anton Webern's entire oeuvre.
John Williams and Julian Bream practising
Julian Bream was an important person in John Williams' background as he was building his career. Eight years John's senior, Bream represented a different school of musical expression, and while Segovia was creating an audience for the "Spanish" guitar around the world, Bream focussed on creating a new repertoire, commissioning and playing new works by British classical composers (Berkeley, Bennett, Britten, Maxwell-Davies, Tippett, Walton, etc.). Williams, on the other hand, had always preferred to approach and absorb other strains of music, notably folk, jazz and even pop. (Personally, I find it telling that none of the major works Bream had created have ever formed part of Williams' repertoire).
It was inevitable that the two men should meet professionally, one already the elder statesman (in his thirties!) and the other reluctantly wearing the prince's crown Segovia had conferred upon him. In Williams' own words, "although the way we each play is alike as chalk and cheese, we're not two musicians, we're an ensemble and we create magic together". Their appearances together, some recorded for television, were to continue throughout the seventies, culminating in their U.S. Tour in 1978.
John Williams, 1971 In common with many classical musicians at the time, and much to the dismay of some in the music establishment, he dismissed wearing white tie and tails for concert performances, prefering to appear in a plain suit. Before long, this developed further and by the end of the 1960s he invariably appeared in loud flowery shirts.
Many of his musical friendships and collaborations have been born from his strong political views, which he makes public by being prepared to perform at fundraising and similar events. His opposition to the military putch in Greece in 1967 found voice in performances of the music of exiled Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, with singer Maria Farandouri, which eventually found its way onto record. Similarly, the 1973 military coup in Chile caused many rally-like concerts with Inti-Illimani, whom the coup had seen exiled in Rome. Williams, together with flamenco guitarist Paco Peña, appeared as guest performers during several Inti tours during the seventies and eighties, and beyond.
Len William's connections with the jazz community meant that John Williams maintained many friendships outside classical circles, and in 1969 he became the first classical musician to appear at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. His appearances there during the summer season were to continue for several years until the late 1970s, and one of the concerts in 1971 was filmed for television. He had approached Patrick Gowers and André Previn to write or develop jazz material for his own style of playing, but this idea was eventually abandoned, and the music remained the classical repertoire, including Albeniz, Tarrega and Villa-Lobos.
However, one piece of music he played there was not born in the classical concert hall, but in the darkened labyrinths of the film scoring studio. In 1970, Williams met film composer and arranger Stanley Myers, who was working on the score of The Walking Stick. Myers played a short piece on the piano, which he was thinking of using as one of the motifs for the film's score, but on hearing the three bars, John immediately became excited and encouraged Myers to develop the theme, not only for the purposes of the film, but as a guitar tune. Myers took the advice, developed the tune and invited Williams to play it on the movie's soundtrack. The film isn't notable, and the piece of music didn't become famous for another decade, when it was re-used for another film. The later film was The Deer Hunter, and the piece of music: Cavatina... Since that time, Williams and the piece have been inextricably linked, an association of which he is evidently proud, having recorded it on no less than four separate occasions.
CBS Award In 1971, John Williams received a a special award from CBS Records to celebrate having sold one million records, a unique feat at the time for a classical musician. The award, a specially-comissioned crystal sculpture of Williams' left hand, was reproduced as the cover of his next album, which was not a CBS release. Changes arose from his association with Stanley Myers, and also featured him playing the electric guitar for the first time. The classical music establishment sneered at Williams "selling his talents short", and many people considered he was wasting his time. Changes featured the first recording of Cavatina (in fact, the onlyZ, released a couple of years previously (the original song being one of the highlights of John Williams' album recorded with Maria Farandouri, released at the same time as Changes). recording of the piece for almost fifteen years), a couple of pieces written especially for the album and arrangements of several pop songs of the time, plus jazzed-up Bach and a re-worked version of Mikis Theodoraskis's theme from Costa-Gavras's film
John Williams and André Previn
Although the Patrick Gowers and André Previn hoped-for arrangements to play at Ronnie Scott's did not materialise, both composers did write pieces for John Williams, both including parts for electric guitar; the Previn Guitar Concerto was permiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the London Symphony Orchestra on 25th November 1971, while Patrick Gowers' first appeared on record at the beginning of 1972. Patrick Gowers was to work with John Williams again in the future, premiering his Rhapsody for Guitar and Organ in January 1974 at the St. Alban's Organ Fesitval, and later working together on the soundtrack for Stevie in 1978.
Early 1973 saw a further development in John Williams' "pop" sensibilities, when he returned to Abbey Road Studios to record The Height Below with Beatles supremo George Martin at the helm. The result was a fusion of all styles, from classical, through Jazz, to pop, linked by far-eastern undertones. The main focus of the recording was the Emperor Nero Suite, written at John Williams' commission by Brian Gascgoine, most famous at the time as Stomu Yamash'ta's keyboards player. The album also included one of the first compositions by John Williams himself, the unadventerously-named El Tuno.
Following release of the album in May 1973, he embarked upon a UK tour with this material, appearing as "John Williams and Friends", with Brian Gascgoine, Carlos Bonnell (who had only just been named Williams' successor in charge of the Guitar department at the Royal College of Music), Morris Pert on percussion and marimba, and Chris Lawrence on bass. These Friends would be involved in many projects to come over the next decade and beyond. In particular, the live appearances included Gascoigne's arrangements of Purcell and Vivaldi, which themselves became the core of the John Williams and Friends album three years later.
His commissions for new pieces were not limited to the experimental world frequented by Previn and Gowers; the mid-seventies also saw new works by Stephen Dodgson, including the Duo Concertante and his Second Concerto. Williams' work with Julian Bream also became immortalised in two recordings for RCA, called Together and Together Again in the UK but inexplicably retitled "Julian and John" for the U.S. market.
In this busy schedule, Williams also found time to make a recording of of Bach's work for Solo Lute, which he adapted himself where necessary. This continued his unofficial schedule of alternating new works with other musicians or concertos with solo recordings of the standard repertoire, and adding to it, with the first modern recording of music of Barrios. Williams' passion for and popularisation of these works earned him the respect of the Paraguayan people, and even that country's Presidential Medal of Honour, which he received at the occasion of concerts there in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.
With Julian Bream in 1979
The decade neared its close as it had begun, with a film soundtrack Stevie, by Patrick Gowers, a solo recording (Ponce), another album with Stanley Myers of "pop" arrangements of Bach and other pieces, Travelling, and a final tour with Julian Bream which found its way onto record.
John Williams' popularity grew to new heights in 1979 with the release of Cavatina as a single, when it was used as the theme for The Deer Hunter, reaching no. 13 in the UK pop charts. It had come hot on the heels of a version by The Shadows, which had done marginally better in terms of chart succcess. The albums on release at the time saw a boost in sales and there was a sudden market for old recordings, so CBS, Decca and Cube Records were happy to oblige with compilations.
However, in the background, a greater shock was brewing, when John Williams got together with four friends to form Sky, a group which was to change the way he and his career would be viewed forever more. But that, as they say, is a different story. 
John Williams with electric guitar in 1979 with Sky
The release of Sky's first album in the early summer of 1979 came as something of a shock to the classical world. Amid cries of "traitor" and "fickle", Williams maintained his composure and, with a wry smile, did his best to dispel fears that his latest project meant the end of his classical career. The five years he was to spend with Sky were to prove probably the busiest of his career, and much to the relief of guitar afficionados, he alternated his work with the band with further classical record releases and concert tours. There is also a popular misconception that work with Sky entailed playing electric guitars - despite the photograph above, he only used an electric guitar on about four of Sky's repertoire of over 50 compositions. Electric duties were the province of Kevin Peek, while Williams stuck resolutely to a variety of acoustic instruments - over time, live performances became limited to using just a Takamine electro-acoustic.
The attitude of the classical establishment can best be summed up with John Duarte's review of the first album for Gramophone, the definitive guide to classical recordings:
... What does an artist, whose performances of the guitar classics set a standard others strive for, find in music as inconsequential as this? Perhaps the album's achievement of a high position in the LP charts makes the question irrelevant.
John Williamd and Pete Townsend: Secret Policeman's Ball 1979 Between his classical concert engagements and duties with Sky that year, in June he found time to participate in the Secret Policeman's Ball gala concerts of comedy and music for the benefit of Amnesty International, masterminded by John Cleese. He had already played during the previous series of concerts two years previously. This was the opportunity of Williams' playing a duet with probably his most unlikely partner, Pete Townsend of The Who, in an acoustic rendition of Won't Get Fooled Again.
As revealed during a joint radio interview in 2005, these concerts were the occasion for the chance meeting with someone who was to prove to be a close collaborator on many projects in later years, multi-instrumentalist and composer Richard Harvey. Richard was playing the bouzouki on stage, deliberately annoying John Cleese during the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch, to be eventually ordered off the stage - straight into the arms of John Williams, waiting to come on for his own contribution to the show. (I would remind them both, however, that the recording sessions for Travelling, in which Harvey participated, and to which he even contributed one of the arrangements, happened a full twelve months earlier.) Two years later, to mark Amnesty International's 30th Anniversary, he and Sky played a memorable concert in Westminster Abbey.
In 1980, after returning from a solo tour of Australia in the spring, despite (or perhaps, because of) his eclectic perfoming schedule, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire by the Queen, one of the highest honours available to non-British citizens (although he's lived most of his life in England, Williams proudly remains an Australian national), although he has never used the title and the fact is not mentioned in his short biographies.
Although Sky was to be the main focus of Williams' activities for the next five years, he maintained a steady output, making his usual new recordings every year, of Boccherini Quintets with the London String Quartet (1980), a solo Albéniz album (1981), and possibly one of the strangest duets ever, that of guitar and organ with Peter Hurford (1982). He also duetted on stage with "folk" singer Ralph McTell during a benefit concert for The Samaritans at Christmas 1982. All of these recordings were accompanied by public performances of the material, so despite the British media's interest in Sky, John Williams remained steadfastly true to his core repertoire. During his 1981 trip to Australia, he met someone who was to have an uncredited but huge influence on his work afterwards, luthier Greg Smallman. Smallman guitars have been Williams' main instrument both on the concert platform and in recordings ever since.
Furthermore, in the summer of 1983 he found time away from a busy schedule with Sky's UK, European and Far East tours not only to record another album with Cleo Laine and perform at the Wavendon Festival, but to re-form John Williams and Friends and release an album of folk tunes, Carlos Bonnell's place in the lineup taken by close friend (and London neighbour) Paco Peña, and Gerald Garcia. The ensemble toured extensively throughout the UK and Europe over the next three years.
John Williams and Patrick Gowers, 1983
After a Christmas concert coinciding with the release of Sky's sixth album at the end of 1983, he decided to leave Sky and returned to his classical roots with a passion. In September at the Royal Festival Hall, he premiered a new work by Patrick Gowers, The Stevie Concerto, based on material written for the soundtrack of Stevie in 1978, a film about the English poetess Stevie Smith.
In 1984 he was invited to be Artistic Director of the South Bank Summer Music Festival. This annual event had been created in 1968 by Daniel Barenboim, whose idea was to form a programme of events to rival the mighty Proms, with the emphasis on variety and smaller ensembles and soloists, whose talents could not be appreciated in the massive Albert Hall across the Thames, organised by a musician rather than a bureaucratic committee. The season was a tremendous success, both in artistic and financial terms, with Williams making a great many appearances himself and surrounding himself by friends such as Paco Peña, Cleo Laine, the Medici Quartet, Peter Hurford and others.
On 2nd October, he performed the premiere of Takemitsu's concerto for guitar and oboe d'amore Vers l'arc-en-ciel, with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a work the Japanese composer was commissioned to write for this orchestra, and which Williams recorded in 1992 with the London Sinfonietta. He was to return to Birmingham two years later for a live broadcast of the Concierto de Aranjuez with Rattle and the CBSO to mark the Tenth Anniversary of the National Exhibition Centre, a multimmedia extravaganza with flashing lights and lasers, bringing the presentation of classical music world even closer to the world of rock'n'roll. The concert was staged in the NEC's Arena, one of the largest indoor venues in Britain (seating some 17,000) and usually more accustomed to the presentation of rock concerts. Williams was evidently at ease in these surroundings, partially from his experiences with Sky, but the same cannot be said of the audience, most of whom seemed to have no idea what to expect...
South Bank Summer Music 1985 Programme Cover
In 1985 he returned to run the South Bank Summer Festival, and with an even more versatile programme of events (many of which again featured him), including many workshops and lectures for younger audiences on topics like the history and variety of guitars, percussion instruments (run by Sky drummer Tristan Fry), and others, brought the South Bank Centre back to a prominent position in the British arts scene
Williams was asked to run the Festival again in 1986 but he declined, taking a stand against the abolition by Margaret Thatcher's government of the Greater London Council, responsible for the funding of the South Bank Centre. Instead, he toured Spain with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and made a highly successful American tour. He also gave a recital in Paris at the Salle Pleyel and took part in the Classic Aid concert in Geneva, masterminded by Lorin Maazel in aid of the United Nations Fund for Refugees. He was also asked to score a small Australian film called Emma's War, one of the few examples of Williams' own compositions.
1987 was to prove not only his busiest year since leaving Sky, but also one of the most varied. He opened the year as Artistic Director of the Melbourne Arts Festival, returning to the UK for a tour with John Williams and Friends. He then undertook a summer tour with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, presenting the latest in his not quite classical commissions: Paul Hart's Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra.
To make a busy year even busier, the self-avowed non-jetsetter appeared at the Toronto International Guitar Festival, performing the world premiere of Leo Brouwer's Fourth Concerto, composed for him, which was to be one of the centrepieces of a recording for Sony Classical The Black Decameron a decade later.
John Williams, Paco Peña, Inti-Illimani in 1986
He ended the year with yet another UK tour, this time with Paco Peña and Inti Illimani. The two guitarists had had a long association with the Chilean group, mainly appearing in guest slots during their concert appearances, but over time this culminated in musical director Haracio Salinas writing new material for a fully integrated programme, which was unveiled at three sell-out concerts at the Edinburgh Fesitval. Since the Intis' return to their homeland in 1988, Williams and Peña have participated in several South American tours with the group.
Taking a well-earned rest, he attended the sole Sky concert that year in November at the Royal Albert Hall (as a member of the audience), and his first appearance in 1988 was with another new work, an guitar concerto by Sky team-mate Steve Gray (with Williams being so busy in 1987, and Gray arranging and recording the latest Sky record, when did they find time to compose, agree and rehearse the new work?). The work was recorded two years later, although not released for another five.
Williams could have been forgiven for taking things easy in 1988. But after appearing on the soundtrack to A Fish Called Wanda, he made new recordings of Bach, Weiss and Couperin, supported by a UK tour in May, and in August made his debut at the Promenade Concerts with the Hart Concerto. He had delayed his first appearance at probably the most famous music fesitval in the world because he had wanted to present a work appropriate for the large venue. As he said at the time, Well, it would have been a bit naff if, after 30 years, I'd made my Proms debut with the Rodrigo, wouldn't it? (he has since played the Rodrigo at the Proms, both during the 1997 season, and in 2005 it is the main highlight of the first half of the famous Last Night). 
1990 opened with a European tour with Paco Peña and Inti Illimani, with the Köln concert recorded and proving to be the first John Williams album not released on LP. It also proved to be the last recording released on CBS Masterworks label, as during that year, CBS Records ceased to be, having been subsumed into Sony Corporation and renamed Sony Classical.
John Williams spent most of the year in Australia, touring with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and premiering Peter Sculthorpe's Second Guitar Concerto, written for him. In November, he celebrated the opening of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre with two concerts. He returned to England with the Orchestra, finishing the year with an appearance at the Barbican Centre and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and returning to the Barbican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He made a coast-to-coast tour of the USA in the autumn of 1991 and played Vivaldi and Sculthorpe concertos with the ACO in a special gala concert at Carnegie Hall. In August, he recorded Steve Gray's arrangement of several pieces from Albéniz's Iberia suite which had not previously been seen as appropriate for guitar transcription.
During 1992 he formed a new ensemble, John Williams ATTACCA, constituting seven Australian and British musicians who toured the UK that summer, performing contemporary music especially commissioned for the ensemble. They then went on to tour Australia, culminating in a concert at the Sydney Opera House.
The 1992-1993 season saw extensive solo recital tours of the UK and the European premiere of a new work for guitar and orchestra by ATTACCA's Nigel Westlake at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra and Kent Nagano. Antarctica is based on music Westlake had written for an IMAX movie about the frozen wastelands, and the piece is extremely evocative. The results of Williams' two-year return to his Australian roots have been immortalised in the From Australia CD recorded throughout that period and completed during 1994.
He also worked extensively on a documentary film about his life and work, which was shot on location in England, Australia and Spain, for London Weekend Television's South Bank Show. The resulting Film ProfileSeville Concert. The film included a visit to Williams' favourite luthier, Greg Smallman, in the Australian outback. Would is available on video and laser disc, including a complete live performance in Seville of the YOUthis man? Appearances can be deceptive... buy an expensive musical instrument from
The 1993-1994 season started with a UK tour with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, premiering the Concerto Antico, written for him by John Williams and Friends collaborator Richard Harvey, while in February 1994, he gave a series of three contrasting recitals at the Wigmore Hall over a period of a week, repeated two months later in New York during his North American tour. These were designed to demonstrate the guitar's versatility and showcase Williams' own talent, being concerts of classical Baroque music, followed by Spanish and modern recitals.
JW and Sebastian Bell
He continued with recitals with Sebastian Bell at the Barbican Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and Birmingham Symphony Hall, and a trip to Paraguay for events marking the 50th anniversary of the death of composer and guitarist, Augustin Barrios Mangoré. One of Williams' long-standing ambitions is to make a documentary for television about the composer and his life. While in South America, he received the Orden Andres Bello en la Clase Banda de Honor from the Venezuelan government for his championing not only of the region's music, but for his unstinting defence of human rights reforms.
During the summer of 1995 he toured Japan, playing recitals in Tokyo and Osaka, and visited the Darwin Guitar Festival, where he premiered fellow Australian Ross Edwards' first Guitar Concerto, in the grounds of the Darwin Casino! In Europe he performed in Barcelona and Amsterdam, followed by Greece, Scandinavia, England and Ireland, together with a return to the USA, including concerts in Chicago and at New York's Lincoln Center. He gave the London premiere of Richard Harvey's Concerto Antico at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding, which was recorded soon afterwards. He also renewed his acquaintance with George Martin and the Medici String Quartet, performing on their new album (produced by Martin). Interestingly, another of the guest artists on that album was Francis Monkman, who had worked with Williams before on many projects, including Sky.
The end of 1996 saw the release of John Williams Plays the Movies, a collection of mainly unremarkable arrangements of popular pieces of music and songs used for films. However, the recording does include a few gems, in the shape of his namesake's main theme for Schindler's List and haunting arrangements of Morricone. Some would insist that the World of John Williams compilation disc included as a bonus was more worthwhile...
John Williams With Tim Kain during an ATTACCA appearance
In April 1997 he appeared in a world-wide tour with his latest duo partner, Australian Timothy Kain (who was also a part of the ATTACCA project), with whom he had recorded The Mantis & The Moon, a varied but balanced recital of guitar music from all continents. In the summer he made a return to the Proms, this time with the solid and faithful Concierto de Aranjuez, with the Spanish National Youth Orchestra. He also found time to perform on Patrick Doyle's sountrack of Alfonso Cuaron's modern retelling of Great Expectations.
At the end of September, he embarked upon an educational tour of China with Gerald Garcia, whose illustrated diary of the trip can be read on Gerald's own web site. One famous incident during that tour which speaks volumes about John Williams' personality and priorities was when, at the end of the tour, he gave his Smallman guitar to Xuefei Yang, a gifted musician who was struggling to afford an instrument worthy of her talents. Xuefei has, of course, since created a major concert career and is now the owner of her own Smallman guitar. He travelled on for a short tour of Australia, including attending the International Festival in his Melbourne birthplace, where his performance was follwoed by an informal masterclass. On 21st October, he attended a special ceremony at the University of Melbourne to be awared an Honorary Doctorate in Music. The year ended with a recital tour of Germany and a tour of the west coast of the USA. The end of the year saw the release of his latest Sony Classical release, The Black Decameron, devoted to the music of Leo Brouwer.
John Williams and Francis Bebey, 2001
1998 started with another tour of Britain in February and continued with appearances at festivals in Brussels and Copenhagen, together with a return to the Darwin Festival. March and April were devoted to meetings with Cameroon musician Francis Bebey, which grew from an increasing passion for traditional African music and rhythms. The result of these and further meetings with Bebey and other African musicians and composers was not going to be seen or heard in public for another three years, with the release of The Magic Box in 2001, much more on which on the next page.
Much of May was spent in the recording studio working on The Guitarist, which was released in October, including a brand new John Williams composition, the Aeolian Suite, accompanied by a patchwork of pieces vaguely on a Mediterranean theme. In June, he appeared at the Vigevano Festival in Italy, at the invitation of its instigator and principal connductor, Carlo Barone. The centrepiece of the performances was the Mauro Giuliani Concerto in A Major Op. 30, which Williams had been encouraged to reinvestigate during meetings with Barone at the Darwin Festival. See this page for much more information, together with a photographs by one of this site's visitors, Daniele Russo. In December, he toured Australia with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the concerto, together with his own transcription of the Schubert Apreggione Sonata for Guitar and Orchestra, and just before Christmas both pieces were recorded, for release the following April.
John Williams and Angelika Kirchschlager
In February 1999, showing that his charity performances were not limited to international organisations like Amnesty International or Greenpeace, he gave a charity performance in a church near his home for a local organisation dealing with caring for the housebound (and their carers), Camden Housebound Link Services and Fleet Carers. During early May, he embarked on a concert tour of Spain, Germany and England with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, playing the Schubert and Giuliani, and in June he performed solo recitals at the Bath and Salisbury Music Festivals. He also participated in Jonathan Elias's meditation piece which Sony's marketing people desperately tried to squeeze into the "new millennium" feeling, The Prayer Cycle, and accompanied soprano Angelika Kirchschlager on her album of lullabies and nocturnes.
In July, he made his biennial visit to the Darwin International Guitar Festival, where apart from solo performances, he participated in open forums in the company of Sky collaborator Kevin Peek. In October, he made a featured appearance with the BBC Concert Orchestra in two concerts in London of film and television music, including selections from the 1996 John Williams Plays the Movies album and his own Aeolian Suite.
It could be assumed that, approaching the age of sixty, musical performers would start winding down, entrenching themselves in their core repertoire and taking things easy. But not John Williams... 
If there is a theme to John Williams' activities in the first half of the new decade, it is not a musical one, as his performances have been arguably more varied than ever before; it's a theme of friendship, personal and musical, old and new.
He opened the new millennium with a benefit concert with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican in London on 9th January 2000 for the victims of the earthquakes in Turkey which had devastated the country in August and November 1999, the prorgamme appropriately including a performance of Domeniconi's Koyunbaba.
John Williams and Leo Brouwer
In March, he again toured Europe with Inti Illimani and Paco Peña, while Sony Classical released a compilation album of tracks from the last dozen years or so under the title Romance of the Guitar, which did include three new tracks, Romance, Williams' own arrangement of Fauré's Pavanne and a new arrangement of El condor pasa by Jorge Morel, recorded just before Christmas. After a short UK tour in early May, he made his first professional appearance in Cuba for the island's Tenth International Guitar Festival, in a concert devised and conducted by Leo Brouwer (consisting largely of the contents of their 1997 album). He opened the 2000/2001 season with another recital tour of Australia.
In September and October, he was in recording studios in London and Paris working on his latest CD, the fruits of the previous several years' research into the guitar music of Africa, and the spring of 2001 saw the release of The Magic Box. Williams had approached this project with more trepidation than most of his previous ventures, wondering as he did whether "five white blokes from North London" could do justice to this material. He need not have worried, though: his guide and inspiration for this project, Francis Bebey, had given it his blessing. The other four white blokes were long-time collaborators Richard Harvey on all manner of exotic blown and plucked instruments and bassist Chris Laurence, plus newcomers to the Friends circle, jazz guitarist John Etheridge playing steel-string acoustic, and percussionist extraordinaire Paul Clarvis. For the recording, they were joined on individual tracks by Bebey himself, the African Children's Choir and even a string section.
John Williams and Friends: Magic Box Tour
The CD was released in a blitz of media coverage unseen since Sky's launch twenty years previously, with Sony Classical contributing a comprehensive web site (warning: makes extensive use of Flash). The new ensemble embarked upon a UK tour in May and June, followed by European and Australasian tours until the end of the year. Sadly, the inspiration for this project, Francis Bebey, died of a heart attack at his home in Paris on 28th May, which added a new poignancy to the rest of the tour.
The concert performances were quite different from those on the CD, not only because the musicians acted as a tightly-knit ensemble (one of my criticisms of the CD is that it is mixed to give prominence to Williams' guitar, which is frankly unfair) and unencumbered by the strictures of the recording studio. The concerts also featured at least twice as much music (the CD lasts under an hour; some concerts lasted more than two), and some pieces were used as a springboard for extended flights of extemporisation by all involved. Of particular note is the new arrangement of the African National Congress anthem (and now national anthem of South Africa), Nkosi Sikelel'I Afrika, with the vocals (for obvious reasons, they didn't take along a children's choir on tour to sing one piece) mesmerisingly transformed by Richard Harvey on Andean panpipes (a hint of which is present on the CD recording, in the piece's introduction). It might sound completely incongruous, but it works!
As Williams has indicated in one or two interviews since, there is a chance that a live CD might be released. In my own opinion, this is worthy of release on video, as the full impact of the concerts cannot quite be judged without the sight of Richard Harvey choosing from his vast collection of instruments, sometimes seeming to play more than one simultanously, or of Paul Clarvis rumaging in his collection of weird objects to use as percussion instruments. Not to mention his remarkable attire, which for the two concerts I attended included his wearing brightly-coloured shorts (I understand this was a regular feature), which would have been particularly striking in auditoria with audience dress codes! I am desperate for any photographs of this ensemble on stage. Can anyone help? If you can, please get in touch! They returned for more concerts in the UK and around Europe in 2002, including a late-night appearance at the Royal Albert Hall Proms on 21st August. The previous day, John Williams fitted in another Proms performance with another set of "friends", the Australian Chamber Orchestra, in a programme which included Nourlangie.
In July, Williams interrupted the Magic Box tour to attend the last Inti-Illimani concert to feature outgoing Musical Director Horacio Salinas, with whom he had formed a close friendship over the previous twenty years. At the end of the year, however, he was to return with Paco Peña to play with them again, under new Artistic Director Manuel Meriño. In the autumn, Williams embarked on his almost-regular October recital tour of North America. This included a masterclass at the University of Arizona, a illustrated report on which by William Wolfe can be seen here, the online Guitrarra Magazine (which I highly recommend).
John Williams and Alirio Diaz
At the start of 2003, Williams delved into one of his oldest musical (and personal) friendships, with Alirio Díaz, the Maestro from Venezuela who had been a fellow participant at the Segovia Summer School fifty years ago, and arguably a greater formative influence on the young Williams' musical education than Segovia himself. Díaz had just published new editions of Lauro and other Venezuelan music, which Williams was eager to play. The resulting CD, recorded in May, was released in September entitled El Diablo Suleto, and is dedicated to Díaz, on the occasion of his 80th Birthday (12th November). The release was, predictably, accompanied by a short recital tour of the UK, starting at the Wigmore Hall. Another highlight of 2003 was writing and presented a four-part series of half-hour programmes for BBC Radio 3 about the history and development of the modern guitar and its repertoire since the early 19th century. The series was broadcast in October, and repeated two years later, in April 2005.
In the meantime, in a move that surprised nobody who knows him, in July John Williams suddenly cancelled his planned US tour for October and November 2003, in protest against the American-British invasion of Iraq, which he had opposed from the start.
In May 2004, Williams attended the Volos Guitar Festival in Athens, Greece, where apart from performing the Giuliani Concerto, he premiered Leo Brouwer's new Double Concerto with Costa Cotsiolis, with the composer conducting Kamerata Athens. The event would be repeated again in Dublin on 3rd July and a year later, on 14th July 2005 in Cordoba, Spain. He played at the Bath Music Festival with Venezuelan harpist Carlos Orozco. During the summer and autumn, he alternated solo recitals of the Venezuelan material and other music (notably, fellow Australian Peter Sculthorpe's Djilile) with performances of the Magic Box material with a slightly different ensemble, known as W.E.B., for which Williams and Etheridge were joined by Patrick Bebey (the late Francis Bebey's son and accomplished percussion and keyboard player in his own right).
He also attended the Dundee Guitar Fesitival in July, where apart from a W.E.B. concert appearance, he participated in a public debate on guitar construction with Greg Smallman, concentrating on Smallman's revolutionary carbon-fibre lattice bracing system.
On 24th November, he premiered another new work, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra under Francois-Xavier Roth. Horacio Salinas, two years after leaving Inti-Illimani, developed Danzas peregrinas based on material he had composed for the Intis in their performances with Williams and Peña in the late 1980s for Orchestra, Guitar and Charango (played on this occasion by Inti member Horacio Durán) and wind instruments (played by the seemingly joined-at-the-hip-to-Williams Richard Harvey).
2005 opened with a tour of Latin America, including sell-out concerts in Mexico and Venezuela in January. On Williams' return to the UK, after more W.E.B. performances, at the end of February, Williams played a benefit concert for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign with 'oud (Arab lute) player Khaled Jubran, performing half of the concert each, and then coming together for two encores (review).
John Williams and Richard Harvey, 2005
A short tour in March with the English Chamber Orchestra was interrupted by a concert launching Williams' latest project with - who else - Richard Harvey: John Williams' and Richard Harvey's "World Tour", which continued with further concerts in July, including at the Luxembourg Music Festival. The quote marks are there for a reason: the title is not meant to imply that they will be visiting every country (although I suspect that this will eventually prove to be the case), but that the music represented will be from every continent. What I have witnessed includes England, Ireland, Spain, Italy, South America, North America, Tailand, China, and, of course, given their common experiences over the last four years, Africa. The surprise is the absence of Australian representation, which I'm sure they'll rectify by the end of the tour...
In April, Williams departed from his usual practice of visiting North America in October, and toured the USA, featuring a new work of his own composition, the Australian-flavoured From A Bird: Six Sketches.
At a ceremony at the University of Southampton on 21st July 2005, John Williams received the honorary degree of Doctor of Music, with the following citation (extracts):
John Williams is a foremost ambassador of the guitar. [...] John Williams embraces jazz, rock and influences from world music as well as the mainsteam classical repertoire. Performances solo and with orchestra have bought him international acclaim [...]. He has been linked with the Turner Sims Concert Hall at the University of Southampton throughout its history, first appearing in 1975
Later that week, he attended the London International Guitar Festival, run by his friend and erstwhile student Carlos Bonell. One of the great sights at the Festival was seeing the three generations of friends and teacher-pupils together: Alirio Díaz (guest of honour at the festival), John Williams and Carlos Bonell, although regrettably there was no chance for all three to perform together.
The rest of 2005 was devoted to alternating solo performances with appearances with Richard Harvey, including stops in Italy, Japan and Hong Kong in the autumn, and an extensive UK tour in the spring of 2006.
The ensemble formed for the Magic Box recordings and tours underwent a further change, Williams embarking on extensive duo tours with John Etheridge. The repertoire underwent an inevitable change, too. Some of the core African material remained, but this was expanded with their own original compositons and arrangements of others, including Bach and Barrios. Jazz steel-string and clssical acoustic guitars duetting had never sounded so good!
Never one to enjoy touring alone, Williams spent the next 18 months alternating duet tours, occasionally appearing alone. The Williams-Ethereidge appearance at the Dublin Guitar Festival on 8th July 2006 was recorded for radio and released on CD in October by Sony Classical.
In August 2006 he attended the International Guitar Festival in Paracho, Mexico. Although not a huge town, it's known to some as the guitar cpital of the world as the whole place seems to exist for the purpose of making guitars and other strinked instuments and plaing them. A documentary about the place and the festival by Charlie Williams, "The Guitar Is Their Song" is available from Eden Films (not the easiest site to navigate or link to, click on "Documentaries and Shorts on the front page.)
Birmingham Symphony Hall stage After a short break from public performing, he returned for the 2008/09 season with a new CD of solo arrangements of Turlough O'Carolan pieces he'd played with Richard Harvey and, more interestingly, his own recent compositions. Some of these, in particular the titular From a Bird, have been road-tested in concerts for quite a few years. In response to Sony Classical's rather strange attitude to short lifespans of their active catalogue, he recorded and published the CD himself - as I type these words, it's less than a week since the CDs left the printworks, and distribution is not yet in place. See this page for more information and how to get a copy.
On a personal note: I've been away for a long time and returned home to Birmingham just in time to discover that John Williams was playing Symphony Hall on 6th November - it was only on my way home that I realised that it was 50 years to the day since his public debut at the Wigmore Hall! It struck me that is fairly typical of what John Williams is like as a person: most performers would make a rather significant song and dance about reaching the 50th anniversary of selling out concert venues - in his case, not a mention was made of it in the programme notes, from the stage, or indeed during our short chat afterwards! I didn't think of taking my camera with me but I did take the above photo with my under-performing telephone - if any of the several people I saw taking pictures during the concert and during the autograph session is reading these words, please get in touch!

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