Classic score for classic film gets classic treatment at Tanglewood

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LENOX — More than two decades after its release, Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" still harbors a fierce bite.

Inaugurating a busy mini-season of nine Boston Pops performances this summer, the screening of "Jaws in Concert" on Sunday night proved that this blockbuster — whose Oscar-winning John Williams score is ranked the sixth-greatest soundtrack of all time by the American Film Institute — remains a classic on many levels, just as relevant and gripping as on its debut 42 years ago today.

With its roots in Melville's "Moby-Dick" and Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," seeing the film, brilliantly projected on Tanglewood's big screen, and hearing the ominous, recurring "thump thump" bass notes of E and F as the "shark theme" performed by the Pops musicians has an impact far beyond a movie theater experience, much less home video.

Keith Lockhart, marshaling his orchestral forces with perfect precision, demonstrated once again that he's a master of the in-concert screencraft pioneered by Williams, the Pops laureate conductor, more than 20 years ago.

Even though "Jaws" had been screened recently during the Pops spring season at Symphony Hall, adjustments to the Shed's sound palette and the presence of some musicians who had not played it in Boston required careful preparation and coordination.

"The acoustic is different, it's actually easier here than at Symphony Hall because it is less resonant from the stage," Lockhart commented during a pre-performance interview.

Even after more than 10 years at the helm of concert film screenings, he acknowledged that "they are a huge challenge, very very difficult for the conductor because to keep things synced up, you can't ever drop concentration. And the orchestra has no idea what you're syncing with, so it's totally you keeping the orchestra in the right place, and them staying together and staying with you. It's kind of exciting but it is an exhausting mental exercise, which is fun."

There's just 51 minutes of music in the film's 130-minute running time, so the extended, dialogue-only scenes unfold as vacationers arriving on the fictional Amity Island (a replica of Martha's Vineyard, where most of the movie was shot) for the July 4th weekend confront the terror of repeated attacks by a great white shark.

When the music cues do appear (there are 20 in all, including opening and closing credits), the atmosphere of foreboding is all the more palpable.

After three fatalities and a close call for Police Chief Martin Brody's son, Michael, the stubborn Mayor Larry Vaughn — fearing a loss of vital summer commerce if the beaches are closed — finally accepts reality and authorizes bounty-chasing Quint — an obsessive, hubris-afflicted Captain Ahab clone — to pursue and kill the shark, with unfortunate consequences for the hunter and the hunted.

Spielberg famously credited Williams for at least half of the film's massive success in the summer of '75 (it scored the seventh-biggest box-office haul until "Star Wars" broke all records two years later.) Rightly so, since we never see an actual shark but share the beachgoers' fear as the music creates such a realistic sensation of impending doom.

In addition to the sharper projection and improved surround-sound audio, subtitles have been added to the concert film screenings in honor of Williams's 85th birthday — "E.T. in Concert" is coming up at Tanglewood on Aug. 25, following the annual John Williams Film Night (Aug. 19), when the composer-conductor is slated to share the podium with Boston Symphony Music Director Andris Nelsons.

Lockhart explained that at times, "it's almost impossible to pull the orchestra down far enough in the middle of the chase scenes to hear the dialogue well. We realize that nobody minds subtitles anymore, and they just make things that would otherwise be marginally clear, totally clear. What we found out was that there are lines that nobody had ever understood in the movie, and now they know what was actually being said."

On the longest day of the year, the screening's start was delayed by a half hour so the film could be seen clearly by the lawn crowd in the slowly gathering twilight.

Three scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, led by deputy director Laurence Madin, held the audience's attention during a mini-lecture detailing their research. WHOI (Whoo-ee), as it's known, even set up a tent on the grounds to whet people's appetites for more knowledge about sharks, including great whites found the waters off Cape Cod.

The late start, and an intermission, made for a long evening but the opportunity to revisit the breakthrough hit for Spielberg and Williams with near-pristine video and audio was one to cherish.

Contact contributor Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551 or cfanto@yahoo.com

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