LENOX - As a salute to the nation's most famous composer and a beloved maestro whose association with the Boston Pops dates back 32 years, Tanglewood threw a mammoth birthday party for John Williams on Sat urday night.
The nearly two-and-a-half-hour gala concert attracted a capacity crowd of about 18,000, Boston Symphony officials said.
The audience -- the largest for an orchestral program in Tanglewood's recent history -- cheered on-stage tributes from iconic filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who has worked with Williams on nearly all of his 35 films over four decades, and from troubadour James Taylor.
"John has given movies a musical language that can be spoken and understood in every country on this planet," Spielberg declared, noting that Tunisian youngsters were humming the Darth Vader theme when he was shooting "Raiders of the Lost Ark" there in 1980.
"John Williams is the most common language through which people of all ages communicate and remember to each other why they love movies," said Spielberg, adding that "I am the only person who can say that I've collaborated with John for exactly half of his life. Without question, he has been the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.
As Taylor put it, "they called and offered that I might sing a song, and Johnny, I'm delighted to add my voice to the chorus of gratitude for your great gift and for knowing you and enriching all of our lives. You introduced me to this musical family of the Boston Symph ony, which has been the joy of my life and not only that -- you introduced me to the love of my life, my dear Caroline," a reference to his wife, Kim.
With BSO and Pops cellist Owen Young, a longtime friend and collaborator, joining him on stage, Taylor told the crowd that "we're going to attempt a song of friendship," namely, "You've Got a Friend" written by Carole King and recorded by Taylor in 1971.
A generous selection of music spanning much of Williams's career was performed by the Pops, BSO soloists and guest artists. including not only selections from "E.T.," "Star Wars," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Schindler's List," but also sections from several of his many works for the concert stage, including concertos for oboe, horn and tuba.
At the conclusion Williams, with characteristic modesty, took only a brief bow with the night's performers following a shower of confetti and streamers that exploded from the rafters after the audience toasted him with a full-throated rendition of "Happy Birthday." He turned 80 on Feb. 8, and remains an annual visitor to the Berkshires as Pops Laureate Conductor as well as Artist in Residence at Tanglewood,
Staged with Hollywood-style production values and multi-hued backdrop lighting, the extravaganza also featured warmly-applauded pre-recorded video greetings from President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, "Star Wars" filmmaker George Lucas, former BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa, and a montage of past and present Boston Red Sox players such as Luis Tiant and Frank Malzone that unleashed a wild ovation from the crowd, with one half-hearted boo from a Yankees fan in the Shed.
"Few artists have left such an enduring and extraordinary imprint on our culture as you have," Obama stated, noting Williams's themes for several Olympics Games and other landmark events. His remarks were followed by a performance of "Air and Simple Gifts," a quartet he composed for the President's 2008 inauguration, by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Gil Shaham, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anth ony McGill.
"You've given so much to American music and Amer ican orchestras," said Clinton. "You've touched the hearts of generations and added imm easurably to the soundtrack of our lives. Your remarkable talent is surpassed only by your humility and your humanity. You're one of our great nat ional treasures."
"John, I'm sorry I'm not here with you," Ozawa said, explaining that he is sad not to have been able to visit Tangle wood this year but has been told not to travel from his home in Japan during his rehabilitation. The conductor has undergone several cancer and back surgeries.
"So, I'm trying to be a good boy," he added. "I know the wonderful things you did for us for so many years. You are a closest friend of mine and I hope to see you very soon."
"There's nobody in the world who matches you for the quality of your work and your creativity," said Lucas. "I think you'll be remembered for a thousand years." The opening theme from "Star Wars" followed, accompanied by a video sequence of well-remembered scenes from the six-film series that propelled Lucas and Williams to worldwide fame, starting with the original release in 1977.
In addition to Ma and Shaham, the night's array of artists included opera diva Jessye Norman (who performed "The Song is You" by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein), and principal players from the BSO. Leading the orchestra were Pops Conductor Keith Lock hart (who took over the podium in 1995, two years after Williams stepped down after 13 years in that role), Leonard Slatkin and Shi-Yeon Sung, a young Korean who served a stint recently as an assistant BSO conductor.
"He remains the living definition of a tough act to follow," Lockhart observed. "He has been an ongoing source of inspiration for all of us at the Pops, a mentor, an adviser and a good friend. His incredible legacy as a film composer stands as living proof that a good part of the magic of movies lies in the magic of music."
The show opened with a tongue-in-cheek pre-recorded video salute by "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams from his 30 Rockefeller Center set, where the composer's theme "The Mission" opens every evening's broadcast. Williams introduced a live, on-stage performance of the composer's Olympic Fanfare by the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, bedecked in full military regalia.
"Maestro Williams, we love you, and enjoy," said the newsman, setting the tone for a celebratory evening filled with good cheer and memorable music.