Guest Column: My Personal Experience at the Celebration for John Williams

John Williams (left) and Gustavo Dudamel (right) shared the stage during an intimate concert series at Disney Hall in January 2019. [photos by Linda A. Rapka/AFM Local 47]

by Bill Peterson, AFM Local 47 Life Member & President Emeritus

I read the glowing review by Mark Swed of the first night of the Celebration of John Williams in the Times last month, and was moved to have a personal kind of celebration; of knowing John Williams, from our time in Tucson in the 775th Air Force band, through my time as Union VP and President, when I presented both John Williams and Steven Spielberg a commemorative plaque on behalf of Musicians Local 47 at a scoring session of 105 players. The plaques were inscribed with our Local 47 musicians’ thanks for consistently scoring their films here in Hollywood, and thereby using our musicians in the resulting scoring processes. Mr. Spielberg told me at that time that he was genuinely touched by this recognition.

So I was fortunate get a ticket and attended the sold-out concert Saturday evening, Jan. 26. The Disney Hall audience was treated to a sparkling, rewarding evening; hearing John’s great scores played by our superb Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.

After the last notes were played, and maestro Dudamel and the orchestra acknowledged the tremendous applause, he turned to the stage door, and John Williams stepped out on stage to thunderous applause. Gustavo welcomed him and they hugged and exchanged words which we could not hear. Then John went off to a thunder of cheers and clapping. But he reappeared, an usher presented our wonderful conductor with a large bouquet of flowers — and John took charge.

He motioned Dudamel to take a seat; the first audience chair just below the stage. Gustavo did so as a librarian hurried out and placed another score on the conductor’s stand. John mounted the podium, picked up the baton, the orchestra responded, and John gave the downbeat to the most extraordinary arrangement of “Happy Birthday” that I have ever been delighted to hear!

The first entrance was the first notes of the song played precisely by the timpanist, who was then joined by the entire percussion section in a complex, fun-filled rendition — while Dudamel, whose birthday it was, beamed, sitting in the audience. This amazing arrangement then featured the woodwind section, playing “Happy Birthday” as John would have arranged it for a Harry Potter film perhaps, with all brilliance of his orchestrative renown on display! Then the French horns had their contrapuntal turn exploring that much loved old refrain. The strings reprised the theme in a virtuosic turn. Finally was the trumpets, trombones and tubas turn to shine! It was a revisiting of the sounds and style of the “Indiana Jones” scores, with a touch of “Star Wars” synchronicity! After a whole evening of John’s demanding scores, it was a lot to ask, but the brass section, highlighted by the trumpets, played flawlessly.

Then Williams turned to us, the audience, and motioned us to stand up and sing; and of course we did. It was “Happy Birthday” in a huge chorus, with great gusto to Gustavo, who came back up on stage where he and John hugged and embraced.

They acknowledged the orchestra, and the audience, then made their way to the stage door, arm in arm. They came back as the audience signaled with cheers and tremendous applause for the two to return.

And so an unforgettable evening with Gustavo Dudamel, John Williams, and the entire, expanded, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra came to a joyous and unforgettable conclusion.

I write this because during this time of national uncertainty and serious problems worldwide, this evening of great music, with remarkable performances by a great orchestra, united with a loving audience, bring us together like nothing else can.

There is hope, and joy and more opportunity to join in the great times that music can bring to all of us.

As MLK said, “We Shall Overcome” — doubt, hatred, selfishness and intolerance, with the great blessing and loving touch of music.

This guest column originally appeared in the February 2019 edition of Overture Online.