Composer John Williams Honored by Education Through Music-LA; Reveals Steven Spielberg Played Clarinet on 'Jaws' Theme

From left: John Williams, ETM-LA executive director Victoria Young Lanier, composer Michael Giacchino
From left: John Williams, ETM-LA executive director Victoria Young Lanier, composer Michael Giacchino
 Randolph Adams

Los Angeles made a strong case for improvisation Sunday night at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles as it honored venerable composer John Williams and music educator Linda Mouradian. Composer Michael Giacchino, best known for scoring Pixar’s Up and all 120 episodes of Lost, filled in for scheduled-but-indisposed host Richard Dreyfuss with energetic banter and great auctioneering efficiency.

Aiming to tease as much competitive bidding as he could out of the up-market but hardly uptight crowd, the sneaker-shod Giacchino, currently at work on the Star Trek sequel, grabbed the wireless mic and immediately acknowledged the dressed-up patrons as they dined. “Ah, the Disney table,” he chirped, "I think all your money is gone, you gave it to George Lucas -- hope that works out for you." (Later, he told The Hollywood Reporter that he was enthusiastic about what the combined companies in the $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney could bring to the Star Wars franchise, potentially including the work of original trilogy composer Williams: “That property has a whole new life -- they should keep telling those stories.”)

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Moving through a slate of live auction items, he used some creative license to tout a bit part on Justified as time spent with star Timothy Olyphant, “the handsomest man in the world” (fetching $2,000) and a Disney concert hall VIP Package as “Breakfast in bed with Gustavo Dudamel.” He shamelessly badgered Williams’ (and his own) agent, Michael Gorfaine (partner Sam Schwartz was not present), setting him in opposition to great rival Richard Kraft of Kraft-Engel Management (Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat are among their clients) for the right to go bowling with Giacchino.  The rivals finally settled on $2,000 to share the evening, which, Kraft later intimated to THR, would set up a “bowl-off” for the rights to rep present Gorfaine client Giacchino. “I bowl 300,” warned Kraft, perhaps exaggerating.  By the time the host worked through the smaller donations (“You can’t go to a Renaissance fair without recorders”), the combined event tally was nearing the hoped-for $150,000.  

Williams was determined, in his brief remarks, to share the spotlight with co-honoree Mouradian, whose three decades-plus of teaching in Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms (and training music teachers as a String Music instructor at Cal State University Northridge), he noted, exemplified an aphorism he once found in a fortune cookie: “Education is not filling buckets, it’s lighting a flame.”

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Williams is a legend in great part because of his steady and artistically rewarding partnership over the filmmaking decades with Steven Spielberg, and was witty in that regard, relating how Spielberg "actually played the clarinet on the soundtrack of Jaws when we needed a student orchestra -- and he filled the bill perfectly. ... my teachers gave me a lifetime of fascination” with music, he added.

"And what about Bill Clinton -- where do you think all that soul came from? Trying to be as good as John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone..."

ETM-LA Chairman Booker White also praised Mouradian, admitting to the attendees  “I know I’m preaching to the choir,” but pointing with pride to the annual expansion of the program to where it’s now serving 5,500 children in L.A.  schools.  Mouradian insisted in a chat before the dinner that “It’s not really about me,” adding that the one message she wanted to get out about music in the schools was for each person convinced by her passion for the music to “Tell a friend, tell a friend, tell a friend.”

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Mouradian uncased her own violin to lead a student group in Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”, and Ryan Rowles conducted Williams’ “Dry Your Tears, Afrika (Amistad)”, while cellist Lynn Harrell (joined by Joanne Pearce Martin on piano) dazzled the crowd with Williams’ “Young Person’s Guide to the Cello” and “Going to School (Memoirs of a Geisha)”. Also receiving a standing ovation was violinist Bing Wang, with “Theme from Schindler’s List” and an arrangement of “Fiddler on the Roof” that sent the crowd home buoyant.

The crowd was studded with accomplished composers, all Williams devotees. Boston-raised Chris Lennertz (Horrible Bosses, TV's Revolution) warmly recalled seeing many of Williams’ famed Boston Pops concerts: “He scored my childhood.” Mark Isham (TV’s Once Upon A Time) praised the honoree’s melodic sense, but said one of his favorites is the jazz-inflected Catch Me If You Can score.  

Perhaps the happiest guest was Mike Barry, who works with local music talent and made the winning bid of $3,500 for the first page, signed, of Williams’ Star Wars sheet music. “It’s a life-changing moment,” he exulted.

In other words, just the sort of moment ETM-LA is hoping to create many times over.

Twitter: @FSchruers

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