If you mention Home Alone to a group of ’90s kids-turned-adults, the response will likely consist of two parts. Jokes about Kevin McCallister’s (Macaulay Culkin) best traps, and Christmas nostalgia. The latter is especially relevant given the story’s setting, but what isn’t mentioned enough is how integral John Williams’ film score is to this sentiment. Sure, a paint can to the face is fun, but mention “Somewhere in My Memory” and chances are everyone will start humming the tune.
So, when the Boston Pops played selections from its former conductor’s film score at a performance last December, the decades of maturity I’d amassed were shed away in an instant. I was no longer a thirtysomething writer enjoying a holiday concert. Instead, I was a 5-year-old boy fantasizing about what I’d do if left behind and forced to defend my home from nefarious burglars. Or, to paraphrase the song’s lyrics, all I could think about were precious moments, special people and happy faces. And paint cans.
Later that same month, the Pops played the entire Home Alone score for three live screenings of the film. These special performances were meant to capitalize further on the movie’s holiday nostalgia. But they also demonstrated an intense devotion to Williams, who conducted the Pops from 1980 to 1993. The Hollywood composer’s arrival in Boston wasn’t a popular decision at first, as he was a West Coast outsider replacing Arthur Fiedler, a bona fide Boston musical legend who conducted the orchestra for 50 years. But what he brought to the organization, including the world premiere of “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back at his first concert, quickly silenced his critics and turned the city into his biggest fan.
“Fiedler put the Boston Pops on the map. Then all of sudden, there was a new guy in town,” says Dennis Alves, Director of Artistic Planning at the Pops. “Things were going great, but when John came in, it was certainly a breath of fresh air. Something new and different.”
A former trumpet player for the Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Alves was on stage at Symphony Hall for Williams’ inaugural concert on April 29, 1980. Among other things, he got to belt out the iconic brass part in the first public performance of “Darth Vader’s Theme.”
“It was a big deal” when Williams came to Boston, he says. Fiedler, the previous conductor, had died the previous year at the age of 84. His absence from the Pops was palpable, and filling the void would be no easy task.
Williams was already an Academy Award-winning film composer when he took up the challenge. The two-note ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm) of the Jaws theme, the triumphant main title of Star Wars, the musical heroics of Superman — these and other film scores had earned him high praises from filmmakers, musicians and audiences. During his 13-year tenure with the Pops, however, he would write the music for the Indiana Jones films, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and, of course, Home Alone — all the while conducting the orchestra’s regular and holiday concerts.