Boston Pops: Film Night at Tanglewood Williams in top form
LENOX -- Judging from his adventurous, two-hour excursion through Hollywood film history, laced with erudite and witty commentary, the force was still very much with John Williams on Saturday evening.
Other than James Taylor's sold-out performances, Williams's Film Night may be the most enduring, popular Tanglewood tradition -- according to the box office, about 18,000 patrons were on hand to greet the nation's most successful living film-score composer with the usual hearty ovations.
Along with a commendably creative approach to programming and his lively conducting -- the annual (with several exceptions) event began in 1997 -- Williams, a spry 82-year-old, regales the multi-generational audience with illuminating anecdotes about directors, cinematographers, actors, dancers and writers.
With well over 100 film and TV series soundtracks to his credit since the 1950s, the composer can reach into the vault and craft a playlist of less-often heard scores mixed with a few golden oldies. "Indiana Jones," "Star Wars" and "E.T." were the crowd-pleasers on this outing with the Boston Pops.
Among the evening's many attractions were two selections from his evocative score for "Memoirs of a Geisha," featuring the richly polished, burnished playing of cellist Martha Babcock.
Also on offer, and arguably the highlight of the evening, was "Dry Your Tears, Africa," from one of Williams's nearly 40 collaborations with Steven Spielberg, whose 1997 film "Amistad" climaxed with the release of imprisoned slaves for a journey home to Sierra Leone.
The remarkably professional accompaniment by 65 student members of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) Young Artists Chorus and 28 Boston Children's Chorus singers gave heft and power to the adaptation of a text by French-speaking Ivory Coast poet Bernard Dadie.
Williams, speaking with conviction and passion about the film's historical significance, translated the lyric from the Mende language of Sierra Leone as "Mother Africa, Your Children Are Coming Home."
The always eagerly-awaited film montages, a Williams innovation, included a blend of historical and re-enacted scenes from the battlefield and the home front as a backdrop to "Hymn to the Fallen" from Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." With the BUTI choristers (16- to 19-year-olds) supplying full-throated vocalism, the tribute to the Greatest Generation was especially moving.
As a sample of the composer's many scores for special occasions, "Call of the Champions" from the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, among co-producers Susan Dangel and Dick Bartlett's most impressive quick-cut cinematic triumphs, illustrated the power of music to heighten the impact of athletic prowess.
Always mindful of his Hollywood colleagues and predecessors, Williams presented a rhapsodic sample of Richard Addinsell's typically British light-music score for "Blithe Spirit" (1945) -- the first of three tributes to director David Lean.
Describing him as "possibly the greatest film director ever," Williams proved the point with memorable musical montages from the 1961 epic masterpiece "Lawrence of Arabia" and from Lean's final film, "Passage to India," released in 1984, described by Williams as one of his favorites. Both scores are among the much-admired French film composer Maurice Jarre's greatest achievements.
Williams called special attention to Lean's painstaking prepared technical and cinematic scene-settings, innovative at the time, long before the advent of computerized imagery.
Tipping his hat to the great dance masters of Hollywood's golden age -- Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Marge and Gower Champion, among many others -- Williams conducted the tango from "Scent of a Woman," excerpts from Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and the Varsity Drag with panache and verve, perfectly matched to film montages cannily assembled by producer Laura Gibson.
Entertainment value aside, Williams' nights at the movies are invaluable guideposts to the indispensable role of music on the big screen. He has helped elevate the art of soundtrack composition to its rightful place in the repertoire.
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