Santa Barbara Symphony musician talks about playing for John Williams
Donald Foster recalled the suspense in the iconic Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios.
The Santa Barbara Symphony’s principal clarinetist was performing with an orchestra recording a movie soundtrack in the same Culver City building used by an orchestra for “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). The acoustics were impeccable; the history was undeniable.
And the moment was unforgettable.
Mr. Foster and his colleagues played as legendary composer John Williams conducted them for the latest “Star Wars” movies.
“Everyone knows the music to ‘Star Wars,’ and all the themes were coming back,” Mr. Foster told the News-Press by phone from his Los Angeles home. “We would get to a part in it or a specific cue, and suddenly we would hear the Darth Vader theme.
“Everybody would be looking at each other in disbelief that we’re all doing this,” Mr. Foster said.
Like others in the orchestra, Mr. Foster, 47, grew up with a love for “Star Wars.” And he and others in the Santa Barbara Symphony have played for Mr. Williams for movies such as “Star Wars” episodes 7, 8 and 9: “The Force Awakens” (2015), “The Last Jedi” (2017) and “The Rise of Skywalker” (2019).
“This was a huge win for us, not just in terms of being part of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, but just to be able to play this amazing historic movie, knowing with No. 9, that would be the end of a 40-year saga that is unlike anything that has been history.”
“The Rise of Skywalker” is seen as the culmination of a storyline that started with the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977.
At the time, Mr. Foster was a young boy growing up in Cypress in Orange County. His love for great music came early.
“Apparently when I was quite young, 3 or 4 years old — back in the day when you had dials on your television — I would end up on PBS, but not to watch ‘Sesame Street’ as one would think,” Mr. Foster said. “I watched any time when there was live orchestral music. My mom and my grandmother told me this.
“Our neighbor was a concert pianist and finished her doctorate at USC,” Mr. Foster said. “I would sit on the front porch of our house just to listen to her practice.”
He said he later narrowed his choice of instruments to the trumpet and clarinet, but found he preferred the latter. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s in 1994 and 1996 respectively at USC. Both degrees were in clarinet performance, and they set the stage for globe-trotting adventures.
“I spent a year and a half with a high-quality orchestra based in Hamburg,” Mr. Foster said.
Playing with the ensemble took Mr. Foster everywhere from Helsinki to Cairo. He also enjoyed the ensemble’s vast repertoire.
‘“I was with some of the most amazing musicians from around the world,” he said. “You haven’t actually lived until you’ve played a Brahms symphony with people of Germanic descent.”
He returned to Los Angeles in 1997 to play with various ensembles, which came to include the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. In the early 2000s, he joined the Pasadena Symphony, and today he’s the orchestra’s principal clarinetist.
Mr. Foster is in his 22nd season with the Santa Barbara Symphony. Today he’s not only the principal clarinetist, but was recently appointed to the symphony board.
“It’s very forward thinking for the board to invite a musician to be on the board. It’s really appreciated,” Mr. Foster said, adding he’s listening and learning and getting to know the other board members.
Mr. Foster said the symphony faces the question of how to eventually and safely resume concerts in light of COVID-19. “Do you only sell a third of the house so you have social distancing?”
Mr. Foster added that he imagines a few players, who are six feet from each other, might perform together in concerts on the internet.
He noted most of the symphony’s members live in Los Angeles, but have demonstrated a willingness over the years to make the long drive to and from Santa Barbara. He said the reasons are a positive work environment; the opportunity to perform with the conductor, Music and Artistic Director Nir Karbetti; a competitive pay raise; and an appreciative audience.
“There’s a palpable excitement about the level of artistry,” Mr. Foster said.
He said his involvement with Mr. Williams began with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008). He followed in the footsteps of the late Emily Bernstein, the Pasadena Symphony’s principal clarinetist who served as Mr. Williams’ principal clarinetist.
After Ms. Bernstein’s death, Mr. Foster became the Pasadena Symphony’s principal clarinetist, and Mr. Williams chose Mr. Foster for his new principal clarinetist.
“It’s not like there were auditions or anything like that,” Mr. Foster said. “I believe John tried a few clarinetists. I happened to be one of those that was asked.”
Mr. Foster noted he and others in Mr. Williams’ orchestra feed off each other’s energy. “There’s a saying in music that it’s really easy to play with great players.
“There’s no ego. Everybody just wants everybody to succeed,” Mr. Foster said. “There’s incredible pride throughout the orchestra. I’m proud of what comes out of the French horns. I’m proud of what comes out of the trumpets.”
And Mr. Foster praised the leader, Mr. Williams, for his energy and dedication.
“The situation with John is typical with every movie. It doesn’t matter if you take something like ‘The Book Thief’ (2005) or something epic and fantasy-driven like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Indiana Jones,’ ” Mr. Foster said.
“John is meticulous and so clear that while you know you’re working with arguably the most famous living composer, you’re also working with one of the greatest conductors,” Mr. Foster said.
“The man is in his 80s. He never complains about being tired,” Mr. Foster continued. “He never complains about being hot or cold or hungry or thirsty. He is such a work horse.
“And conducting is so physical. For him to stand on that podium and wave his arms around and his body standing for seven to eight hours at a time, somebody half his age might complain about some fatigue,” Mr. Foster said.
“It really puts everything into perspective It’s a love of the art.”
For more about the Santa Barbara Symphony, go to www.thesymphony.org.