Richard Kaufman goes a long way back with John Williams. Trained as a classical violinist, Californian Kaufman started doing session work in the Hollywood studios in the 1970s. He played for everything from TV shows like McMillan and Wife and Kojak to numerous movie soundtracks. One of the movies was Jaws, with Williams conducting his score in recording sessions in 1975.
"I played violin on six of John's scores, including Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'' says Kaufman, now pops music director of the Florida Orchestra and conducting a Williams program this weekend.
"He's just an amazing man, personally and professionally,'' Kaufman says of Williams. "He is very low-key, the ultimate gentleman. The studio orchestra players would throw their bodies on the tracks in front of a train for him, because he's such a nice person, a great musician and fine conductor.''
Kaufman worked with Williams on the music department staff of 20th Century Fox. Today, he and the composer collaborate on a series of film music concerts for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in which they share podium duties.
The Florida Orchestra will play a wide selection of Williams music from Superman, Jurassic Park, Memoirs of a Geisha, Jaws, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Hook and other movies.
"Symphony orchestras love a challenge,'' says Kaufman, also pops conductor of the Dallas Symphony and Pacific Symphony in Orange County, Calif. "John's music gives players who are used to playing Beethoven a different kind of opportunity to flex their muscles. So when I program a concert like this, I program as much for the orchestra as I do for the audience.''
Kaufman has a lot of good Williams stories, such as how the composer got his start as a piano player and was in the band that performed Henry Mancini's jazzy theme for the '60s TV private-eye series Peter Gunn.
Williams has written the music for every Steven Spielberg feature film but two, and Kaufman tells a revealing story about E.T. "When John wrote the great ending, the chase and the flying theme, Spielberg went back and recut the film based on the music John had written, because the music is so perfect. Steven adjusted the visuals to go with the music, which is unheard of.''
Kaufman puts Williams in the pantheon of classic film composers that includes Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind), Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard), Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) and Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird).
“Jaws could be the perfect score,'' he says. "There are times when the score drives the movie. That doesn't happen anymore."
Nowadays, the job of the film composer is often overshadowed by high-tech sound effects. "If there's a big chase or some dramatic sequence with a lot of noise, you're not going to hear the music,'' Kaufman says. "With more technology, the nuances of music are pushed to the back.''
The sweeping melodies of Hollywood's golden age are mostly gone. "I think that directors and producers are afraid of melody,'' Kaufman says. "I think what they're looking for is to establish mood. A lot of directors today don't trust the composer. John is one of the last people where a director will trust him and ask, 'What would you do here? You tell me.' ''
The music from blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars is familiar to everyone, but Kaufman likes to bring attention to some overlooked Williams scores, such as The Eiger Sanction, Home Alone and 1941. One of his favorites is a song called If We Were in Love, sung by opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti during a hot-air balloon scene in Yes, Giorgio.
"It was a horrible movie, and a very tough shoot, but John wrote this gorgeous song that isn't heard very often,'' says Kaufman, who worked on the MGM film as a music supervisor.
Kaufman is looking forward to this weekend's concerts, which are likely to be among the best attended of the orchestra season.
"One of the things I've noticed from doing a lot of movie music in concert is that it can stand alone as a concert piece as well as any music,'' he says. "Audiences relate to it, and they love it. It's the consummate popular American art form.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.