Questions for Steven Reineke: the film music of John Williams at the TSO

Steven Reineke is a pops conductor, an arranger, a composer, and very busy all over North America, as Music Director of The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Principal Pops Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Principal Pops Conductor Designate of the Houston Symphony. Reineke has collaborated with a range of leading artists from the worlds Hip Hop, Broadway, television and rock including: Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Sutton Foster, Megan Hilty, Cheyenne Jackson, Wayne Brady, Peter Frampton and Ben Folds, amongst others. As the creator of more than one hundred orchestral arrangements for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Mr. Reineke’s work has been performed worldwide, and can be heard on numerous Cincinnati Pops Orchestra recordings on the Telarc label. His symphonic works Celebration Fanfare, Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Casey at the Bat are performed frequently in North America, including performances by the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic. His Sun Valley Festival Fanfare was used to commemorate the Sun Valley Summer Symphony’s pavilion, and his Festival Te Deum and Swan’s Island Sojourn were debuted by the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops Orchestras. His numerous wind ensemble compositions are published by the C.L. Barnhouse Company and are performed by concert bands worldwide.


Conductor Steven Reineke (photo: Adrian Mendoza)

Reineke will be leading the Toronto Symphony this week in a program of film music by John Williams, arguably the real genius behind the Star Wars films, and a composer of many great scores.  I had to ask him a few questions.

1. How did you become you? What were the early influences on you?

Well as with anybody, especially in a creative, artistic field, I think there’s more than just one person that you take training from and influence from. My earliest influence I would say was my father. From the time I can first remember until I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, my dad, who was a banker – it was his profession his whole career – would sit on the edge of my bed with his guitar and play his guitar and sing me to sleep almost every night. That instilled in me a very early love and passion for music – in particular a lot of popular folk music, because it was the music that he would play, was the music of John Denver; Peter, Paul and Mary; Harry Chapin; and the like. And that was a very early memory of mine that instilled this great love of music. And then, as I got older, of course there were several band directors along the way that were very influential, but it wasn’t until later in life, in college, when I really started to get another mentor that taught me a lot. His name was Ron Matson and I never actually had any official class with him, but he was a piano player, an accompanist, and a faculty member at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where I did my undergraduate. I was studying to be a trumpet player, and he would accompany me for recitals and such, and he taught me so much about music and he didn’t know anything about playing the trumpet, but he knew music, so that was a certain thing that was very helpful to me, but also he taught me a very valuable lesson. We would hang out as friends as well and we’d go see a movie together, say, and I would come home and play 85 – 90% of the movie score on the piano, and I thought everybody in music did that. But he was able to convince me, “No, that’s kind of a unique, special talent.” That was a turning point for me, because I almost didn’t want to recognize that that was a unique special talent, because with that came a responsibility of what am I going to do with this? In a way, I didn’t necessarily want to be special, and he taught me that I had a special kind of talent, and something that I really needed to focus on, and hone, and work to figure out how to best use that.

And then my great mentor came in 1995, when I became the assistant conductor for Erich Kunzel.  He was the founder and conductor of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, and he hired me to be his assistant and right hand man, eventually becoming his Assistant Conductor. He was the greatest influence I ever had, and took me under his wing, and we truly had one of those great mentor-protegee relationships, where he taught me everything he could about this business, and taught me how to be a conductor. So he was quite influential in my life. When you’re able to look back in the rear view mirror you see how the path unfolded and you see the people that came into your life that were the most meaningful in your career.

2. What is the best thing about what you do?

The best thing about what I do is entertaining an audience and seeing them light up, and have a wonderful time enjoying many styles of popular music. I always say, when I conduct a concert, those two hours of conducting a concert are my favourite two hours of every day. There’s so much work going into it, and yes I do get to arrange for my own programs, I compose for my own programs, put it all together, fundraising, the rehearsing, all of that. But the best part is when we finally get to go out there and I always say, it’s game time. Game on! And there we are. The spotlight hits, and there’s a full audience, and we take them on a journey. Because as a pops conductor, what I do isn’t about some great, deep mystery of education, necessarily. It’s about entertainment. And people love to be entertained, and I think I was a born entertainer. People think it’s maybe an act, but that’s no act, I couldn’t act that, that’s just a natural response. I can be in the worst mood, or have other things going on in my life, and it doesn’t matter. Still, when I take that stage, and the lights are on, nothing else exists for me. It’s the one time where I’m completely immersed in the moment. I just conducted concerts in Vancouver this weekend on Friday and Saturday, and my father passed away Wednesday. I was thinking about it because he of course was a great influence for me and he loved coming to my concerts, and so I was kind of in a bit of a funk all over the weekend, but the concerts were a huge success and I felt so energized and it didn’t even cross my mind while I was conducting. I knew I was there doing my life’s work and I loved it.

3. What do you like to listen to or watch?

As far as listen to, my go to music if I just am relaxing in my house, maybe throwing a dinner party or just cooking dinner for myself and my husband – Ella Fitzgerald is one of my favourites. Ella is one of my girls. But all the girl singers of the Golden Age, the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, I’m really particularly drawn to the music of that era, and the girl singers, especially Ella, are very near and dear to my heart. As far as watching, there’s lots of TV shows that I love. I binge watch on Game of Thrones, and House of Cards, those are two of my favourites.

4. What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

The ability to fly like Superman. That may not be where you were going with that question, but yes, if I had the ability to fly! I have dreams about it often, and they’re the most amazing dreams when I’m physically soaring. Also I fly on airplanes so much, and that gets so tiresome, if I could do it a different way, just like Superman, I would love that.

5. When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?


Conductor Steven Reineke (photo: Michael Tammaro)

A couple of things that I really love to do that I find very relaxing: I’m a crossword puzzle fanatic. I do at least one crossword puzzle a day, normally four or five, really. They go rather quickly, it depends, if it’s a travel day, this is how I bide my time on airplanes and whatnot. I definitely do pretty much every day at least one crossword puzzle in the morning, that gets myself awake and alert and gets my brain moving. Another thing I love to do is shoot billiards. I’m quite a pool shark, and that’s great way for me to relax and unwind and spend time with friends. We have a pool table in our building, so when I’m home and not working, and we’ve got our free evenings, that’s what my husband Eric and I do. We go down there and have a glass of wine, shoot a few games of pool, play best out of three or best out of five, and then we’ll go up and make dinner. It’s a great relaxation, fun, game time.

6. Tell us about the “Music of John Williams“, and which films you’ll be spotlighting.


Composer & conductor John Williams

The concert we’ll be performing is called, “The Music of John Williams: From Spielberg to Star Wars”. This really started out as I wanted to do a tribute to the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams, getting Spielberg in there because this is the year of Spielberg’s 70th birthday, so it was a bit of a celebration of Spielberg as well. And so, most of the program is devoted to their 40 plus year collaboration. And then the last 25 to 30 minutes of the concert is music from Star Wars, and most of it is the newest music John wrote for The Force Awakens, which J. J. Abrams directed. The music is just recently available for orchestras to be able to perform, and it’s so, so good. And also garnered John Williams his 50th Academy Award nomination for The Force Awakens, which is astounding. That’s the living person with the most Academy Award nominations by far, and he’s only second in history. The only person with more Academy Award nominations is Walt Disney with 59 nominations. John might have a chance to beat him, if he keeps doing this, he might get up to 60, who knows. And oddly enough he’s only won five times out of 50 nominations. Our program begins with a great way to open a concert, with that soft, menacing motif from Jaws. It’s the Shark Theme from Jaws, which was the first big hit that Spielberg and Williams had. They had done one movie prior to that called The Sugarland Express that was rather forgettable for most people. And so in 1975 they had a hit on their hands with Jaws, and that’s where we begin the program. Of course there are some big hits like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, but I particularly love some of the other music. I am such a fan of the music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s such a romantic, lush, almost operatic score that John created for that film. And I’m also very partial to the music from War Horse and from Lincoln, which is a little more subdued than the bombast of Star Wars or Jurassic Park. It’s got really great meat on its bones, some very elegant music. So that’ll be a lot of fun! John has a particular way about him to contribute to films. When you hear a John Williams theme – well first of all, the music can be taken out of a film and put in a concert hall and be just as successful as if you were watching the movie, because the themes become so closely identified with the movie that you immediately think of the film. You may think of the first time you saw the movie, you may think of a particular actor or character, you may think of a scene…it will take you right there. It’s so visual and visceral, and he has a knack for writing these melodies that are just inseparable from the memory of film. Also, I have lately been working on – we do these film with orchestra projects where we screen the movie on a large movie screen above the orchestra, and the orchestra plays the soundtrack live, coming up these year I’m going to be doing a couple of movies that way, so in my practise I have had the opportunity to watch those films with no music in it, and I wish everybody could see it. They’re still good movies but it’s so not the same movie until you put the soundtrack there. So much of it is incredibly boring, dull, nothing going on. You add the music into this and boom, suddenly you have magic! You have cinematic magic. But it takes the music to make these movies work. Spielberg would go over to John Williams’s studios and John would play several themes for him, and they’d work on that together. There’s a wonderful story about the bicycle chase sequence in E.T. where John had a particular idea in mind with the music he wrote, and in the actual scoring session where they were recording the soundtrack, and the movie was playing on a big screen, John could never get it to line up exactly the way he wanted with the music he had created and wanted to create. Spielberg eventually said, “John, let’s turn off the movie, you conduct this awesome music the way you intend it to be.” That’s exactly what they did, and Spielberg went back and re-cut that sequence of the film to match John’s music. Now, think of directors that do that – not many have every done that. Spielberg actually changed his movies after he shot them and edited them, because the music is usually one of the last things to be added. He went back to the drawing board and re-did an entire scene just to fit John’s music.

7. There are several points of contact between you and John Williams, the composer, the arranger and the conductor who succeeded Arthur Fiedler at the helm of the Boston Pops Orchestra. Do you identify with him and his music?

First I have to say that I am a huge John Williams fan and I have been ever since I was a teenager. As a matter of fact, when I was in college studying trumpet and then music composition, I wanted to become a film composer. I would say I wanted to be the next John Williams. I actually won a grant and went to Los Angeles and studied film music for two years as a composer, and even had the opportunity to meet John Williams briefly while I was out there. So I have extraordinary respect for him. If one were to listen to my original music, my compositions, there is clear indication of John Williams’s influence in the music that I wrote. There are a lot of moments of pieces of mine, where you can tell, that’s a bit of an homage to John Williams, which I take as a great compliment, to be able to achieve something as good as that. Now, the other thing is I just totally respect the fact that he is one of the last bit of the old guard of film composers that comes from true European orchestral tradition, where he’ll record with a 90-piece orchestra, and a lot of movies just don’t do this anymore, and the sound of that is a very different type of sound than you get with a lot of modern movies that are using pop or rock music or sourced music. The scope of it is very different, and it goes in the long line of the Europeans that came to Hollywood to do film music, and those include Prokofiev and Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Those guys of the 40’s and the 50’s that were real life composers. John is too. He writes more than movie music, he’s written several concertos and sonatas and lots of orchestral pieces and they’re very different than his film scores. They are true pieces of classical literature and classical repertoire and they are in the classical world. I love the fact that he comes from that tradition, because that’s where I feel I come from too, as a classically trained composer.

8. It’s been said that film music works best when it’s not noticed, a truly challenging medium. How do you handle the paradox of bringing attention to something that lives under the radar?

Well that’s very true, and I’ve heard that quote many times. Some of the most successful film scores, the music just gets out of the way – it isn’t meant to draw attention specifically to itself, but enhance what’s happening visually or dramatically inside of the movie. John’s music is a little different because his music is as much a character in the films as any of the characters. It’s as unmistakable as anything else, he writes real themes and melodies instead of just a bunch of esoteric sounds. There’s real melodic and harmonic structure to it instead of just droning on with a minor chord just to make people feel sad. I’ve got no problem drawing attention to John’s music because it just works so perfectly outside of the film and in its own concert setting. His music works in a concert hall setting better than most. You listen to a lot of other people’s film scores, and if you listen to the entire score you might only find five to 10 minutes out of a 90-minute score that you could actually pull out of it that would be interesting to do in a live concert setting. The rest of it is just often background music – something that is meant to be in the background – atmospheric. His pieces are truly concert pieces. He’s like the Mozart of our day. He is that prolific, and the fact that he has worked in all these different genres – if Mozart were alive today, I believe he would be doing what John Williams is doing. He would want his music out there to as many people as possible, and I think he would have loved the idea of writing for film.

9. What are your favourite film scores?

I’m a big fan of Ennio Morricone.


Composer Ennio Morricone

He’s one of my absolute favourites. And I would say my favourite film score probably of all time is from Cinema Paradiso. Beautiful, beautiful Italian film with just incredible music by Morricone. One of my favourite film scores. It’s a love story about a young boy and a girl, and also his love of film from his hometown as a boy growing up. But the music that Morricone wrote for it, it just touches my heart and soul so deeply because it’s so incredibly beautiful. I’m so jealous, I have often sat down writing, and thought, “God, if only I could write a love theme this good.” The love theme from Cinema Paradiso is one of my favourite pieces of music there is. But also it’s a gorgeous film, and the score and the film work so brilliantly together, and it’s a fairly simple little score, but it’s just so gorgeous and so effective. Of course, the music from The Mission is another great one by Morricone. I am a huge fan of his.

10. Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I could list a few. My father, Erich Kunzel from the Cincinnati Pops, who I owe so much of my career to, and then other great influences in my music are Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and John Williams. No lie. These three Americans – they have a distinctly American sound to them as well, and I just love how accessible their music is while also maintaining real integrity. It’s music with real meat on its bones. They all have written substantive music. It’s music that has weight and power to it, which will give it longevity because it’s not just a flash in the pan and then you get bored with it, because it’s not a novelty, necessarily, it’s music with substance. Every time I’m working, creating, I always judge myself, probably more harshly than anyone else, about, “Is this music good?” And that’s such a subjective thing, but does it have real merit as good art?


Steven Reineke comes to Toronto this week, leading the Toronto Symphony in a program of film music by John Williams on May 17th and 18th .  Here’s the program:

  • Shark Theme from Jaws (1975)
  • Selections from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  • March from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  • “The Flight to Neverland” from Hook (1991)
  • Theme from Jurassic Park (1993)
  • Main Theme from Schindler’s List (1993)
  • “Dartmoor, 1912” from War Horse (2011)
  • “The People’s House” from Lincoln (2012)
  • Main Title Theme from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
  • Suite from Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
    March of the Resistance
    Rey’s Theme
    Scherzo for X-Wings
    The Jedi Steps and Finale
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