LENOX — When a crowd of around 18,000 gathered in Tanglewood on Saturday night to honor John Williams on his 90th birthday, a former Boston Symphony executive sitting in the Koussevitzky Music Shed can claim credit for having orchestrated the start of the composer-conductor’s 42nd birthday. association with the Boston Pops.
Joining the BSO led by its former associate conductor Ken-David Masur will be a star-studded lineup of celebrity guests closely associated with Williams, including James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma.
Since the show is sold out, Tanglewood urged ticket holders to arrive early, “as the parking lots will fill up quickly and the grounds will be very busy.” Doors open at 5:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. event.
In the audience will be Thomas W. Morris, a prominent classical music arts administrator and consultant. In 1969, at the age of 25, fresh out of Princeton University and the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, he landed an entry-level job as a payroll clerk in the BSO’s finance office. .
“I started out as a small cog in a big machine,” Morris told me by phone from Cleveland this week.
After steadily rising through the ranks, Morris was appointed in 1978 to the newly created position of General Manager of BSO, serving until 1985. Responsibilities included the Boston Pops, Tanglewood and Symphony Hall.
He is in charge of finding a successor to the legendary Arthur Fiedler, Pop orchestra conductor for half a century until May 1979, two months before his death.
“Everyone thought the Pops were Fiedler, or Fiedler was the Pops, he really honed it in his image,” Morris recalled. The bandleader conducted most of Boston’s 54 concerts during the nine-week spring season. Audiences here enjoyed seeing him ride in a fire engine on the grounds of the annual Tanglewood on Parade festivities.
“The Pops was a symphony orchestra that let loose in the end, it wasn’t a pop orchestra that played that legitimately,” Morris said. Thus, the successor had to be “someone who knew how to conduct a symphony orchestra, not just an artist. There weren’t many options.
Among the guest conductors was Williams, who conducted two concerts to great acclaim.
Later in 1979, Morris knew it was time to intensify the search, “but I hadn’t quite figured out in my head what we really needed to do.” But the “absolute must-haves” included a higher degree of musical integrity, as Fiedler had possessed, and “we needed a conductor who wouldn’t see this job as a stepping stone to continue conducting. Mahler symphonies,” Morris said.
After consulting with Andre Previn, the bandleader and composer whose career had begun in Hollywood, “the name that kept coming up was John Williams,” Morris noted. Previn knew Williams well and urged Morris not to underestimate the composer of 40 film scores at the time, including ‘Jaws’, the first ‘Star Wars’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘Superman’. .
As Morris recalled, Previn told him that Williams “is the consummate pro – he knows the instrument of the symphony orchestra better than anyone Previn has ever met, he knows how it works, how it sounds, how to work with and conduct it” based on extensive experience with film studio orchestras.
Williams seemed like the perfect choice, but given his busy Hollywood career: Was he interested in taking on the Boston Pops? After a Boston Globe article in late 1979 listed him among the candidates, Morris received a letter from Williams stating that he had seen the article and was flattered to be considered.
After agreeing to conduct a Boston Pops 50th Anniversary Gala at Carnegie Hall in New York in early 1980, he was secretly interviewed by members of the search committee and by music director Seiji Ozawa. “Everyone was impressed with him,” Morris said, but his level of interest remained uncertain.
For a week in London, while Williams was recording the soundtrack for “The Empire Strikes Back”, Morris wooed him in long conversations over dinner. “He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes either,” Morris admitted. “Then fate intervened.”
A Boston Herald American front-page story revealed Williams as the preferred candidate, after which the deal was announced on January 10, 1980 – “the universal reaction was complete surprise, no one had a clue” , Morris said. “Everyone knew he was a pro. Seeing how he grew up with it and built it in his image warmed my heart.
“John maintained the very elegant image of the conductor of Pop, he continues, who took his guts because he had not been a public performer. but he learned how, got into it and succeeded. Pops became a bigger business for the BSO, and John really revived the notion of a big symphony orchestra playing movie scores.
Resigning after 13 years, Williams has been the award-winning conductor since 1994 and became artist-in-residence at Tanglewood, which he visited almost every summer, creating the ever-popular “Film Night” and composing some of his best-known scores, including “Schindler’s List”.
Morris then conducted the Cleveland Orchestra from 1987 to 2004, then consulted for more than 50 organizations, including Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. From 2004 to 2019 he was artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival near Los Angeles.
“Besides everything else, John Williams is one of my dearest friends, and an opportunity like this we wouldn’t miss,” Morris said, anticipating his and his wife’s return to Tanglewood. for the first time since celebrating Williams’ 80th birthday. .
“He’s a great character, 90 years old and writing the score for ‘Indiana Jones 5.’ ”