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Composer David Newman played violin on John Williams's 'E.T.' score, now he's conducting at the Hollywood Bowl

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Henry Thomas stars as Elliott in Steven Spielberg's film "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial."
Henry Thomas stars as Elliott in Steven Spielberg's film "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial."

This weekend, Angelenos have the unique opportunity to hear John Williams’s score to "E.T." performed live by the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" hit theaters back in 1982, captivating kids and parents alike.

Though 33 years have passed since then, the film remains a classic. Not just because of Spielberg’s masterful filmmaking, but also because of the iconic score by composer John Williams.

This weekend, Angelenos have the unique opportunity to hear Williams’s score performed live by the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.  

Unfortunately, Williams won’t be conducting his score due to a scheduling conflict (though he will introduce the film via a recorded video message). Instead, David Newman — a member of the iconic musical family that includes his father Alfred Newman and cousin Randy Newman — will take the baton.

So why is David Newman the right person for the job? As he told me when we sat down recently, he happens to know the "E.T." score very well. 

I actually played violin on "E.T.," I used to be a violinist. So I remember that vividly. I remember standing in line at the Cinerama Dome on opening night to watch it, but I had played on the score. It was done at what is now Sony, but it was the old MGM scoring stage. I remember the first cue that he did was the flying cue near the end of the movie, where they're flying to get away from the bad guys before E.T. goes home. It was an absolutely thrilling experience. Though all the images of "E.T." were blacked out. That was when they started to get really paranoid, they didn't want anyone to see what things were going to look like. 

Interview Highlights:

Having played on the score when it was recorded, what is it about the instrumentation of this movie that makes it so specific to the theme and the tone of the movie?

Like all of John's work in that genre, it has a couple of really big beautiful heroic themes, you have a director that really understands what music can do to a story, emotionally as well as, in some ways, narratively. I think John Williams, him and his team, have been incredible orchestrators. By that I mean how he chooses which instrument plays which note. Actually when you're sitting in a scoring session everything sounds good really quickly, because there's such craft in it. Everyone knew when we were playing that that it was going to be a big deal. 

How much do you listen to the score before conducting?

Over and over and over and over. You cannot prepare enough. I have this whole system. It's better for me if I have it for six weeks or eight weeks, I try to get it as early as possible. I go through the whole score and mark what I need marked. Then I do it with the music playing, then most importantly I turn the music off, and just practice and learn your proclivities. Then you go and do it with the orchestra and that brings this other organic entity into it. It's like pushing a truck up hill. They're very hard to move, then you have to re-adjust what you're doing. You thought you might be going too fast, maybe now isn't fast enough. 

How many rehearsals will you have?

Two. Maybe three. Very rarely there's just one, maybe if they've played it before. The thing that's hard is you need to synchronize and you need to make music. You can't do one or the other. If you synchronize then you're conducting like a robot. and if you make music and you're not synchronized, you can feel the audience. They don't know everywhere that's not synchronized but there are certain places where it's absolutely obvious that you've missed a sync point. 

Two years after "E.T." came out, you scored your first film, Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie." How did that come about? You're in the family business, so did you know that you were going to end up scoring films?

I had no interest or intention of ever writing music. I was a professional violinist in my 20s, I was obsessed with conducting and I was conducting as much as I could, and I was studying as much as I could. I went to USC, I got an undergrad degree in violin and a masters degree in conducting.

But this was absolutely not on my radar, because my dad wasn't a very self-aggrandizing person. He was a very shy person. I think there's a famous clip of him accepting an Academy Award and immediately getting off the stage.

(Skip forward to 2:14 to see the speech)

It was probably the shortest acceptance speech in Academy history, and my dad was a huge opera and classical music fan. That's what was talked about in my family, not films. He was always denigrating film music, and it was only when I got older, after he had passed away and I was listening to his music in school, that I discovered what film music really is.

I think they were so ambivalent about it, these guys — Franz Waxman, Steiner, my father, the pioneers of this — because it wasn't concert music, so they thought it was less than that. But that's changing now, and in a lot of universities now there's more film music being taught. I mean, ballet's a functional medium, so is opera to a certain degree, even though music is more hegemonic in both of those than it is in film music. But it doesn't negate the possibility that certain film scores work splendidly well, as well as any other concert music, as concert music.

John Williams is 83 now, still going strong and working on "Star Wars," but talk about his legacy and what he means, not only to the world of film composing but what he means to you.

I think there has never ever been a career like John Williams'. That whole "Jaws" phenomenon — there's nobody that knows how to use music like Spielberg, and John is just the perfect analog to Spielberg.

There's never been a populist composer like that, that's so well-trained and has such great craft and loves making beautiful music, beautiful melodies, and yet there's a lot of Modernist music in "E.T." I know we all remember the big themes, but the first two acts are comprised of this weird, Modernist music. E.T.'s in the house with the Reese's Pieces, and all that stuff is very delicate and weird, and I think John should be applauded. [laughs] He's really brought this to a larger public and has shown that this music can work in concert. 

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