Salute to storied film studio

Tuesday, July 21
LENOX - After more than a decade of Film Nights at Tanglewood, conceived by John Williams and now widely imitated elsewhere, one might expect ritual and predictability to creep into the annual Boston Pops season highlight. One would be wrong. At 77, the indefatigable composer-conductor remains innovative and energetic as he demonstrates for a multi-generational audience how, at its best, the music that swells from the silver screen can become the soundtrack of our lives.

With five Academy Awards and 109 film scores to his credit (including five major projects currently under way), Williams chose to salute the storied history of the Warner Bros. studios - the main event on a gloriously rain-free Saturday evening.

Founded in 1918 by Jewish immigrants from Poland, Warner Bros. has been home to classics from the first "talkie," Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" to the wildly successful six-film Harry Potter series, which has reaped about $3 billion at the box office worldwide. Among the stars in the Warner stable: Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, James Dean and Clint Eastwood.

The choice of Frank Langella as co-host was an inspired one. Clearly tickled to have been invited, Langella offered a breezy, humor-laced narration with personal twists.

Often departing from the prepared script to inject personal anecdotes, he related a brief encounter with Miss Davis in a hotel lobby during the last year of her life. Expressing his admiration with fulsome praise, Langella was greeted with a flash of those Bette Davis eyes and, in her inimitable, clipped style, a simple "Thank you!" Langella told the audience that he had longed to ask her for a date.

The Davis segment, featuring a cleverly assembled montage of some two-dozen cinematic triumphs, was screened and synched to Max Steiner's memorable main-title theme from "Now, Voyager," arranged by Williams and featuring a lush, luminous solo by Pops concertmaster Tamara Smirnova.

The Warner tribute opened with a quick-cut assemblage of scenes from the studio's best-known pictures, set to a suite from Erich Wolfgang Korngold"s score for the 1939 Bette Davis-Errol Flynn classic, "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex."

A selection of production-number highlights from WB musicals followed, featuring Jolson and James Cagney (notably "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), along with several of the 40-plus films directed or choreographed by Busby Berkeley from 1930 to 1962 (including the original 1933 "42nd Street"), accompanied by music by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin.

Also feted was James Dean, who rocketed across the Hollywood landscape and gained legendary status through only three films, "East of Eden," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant," before he died in an auto accident at the age of 24.

"Casablanca," the film I would choose for my desert island if I could have only one, has an inspired score by Max Steiner, spinning off "La Marseillaise" and "As Time Goes By" from the 1931 Broadway musical "Everybody's Welcome," memorably performed on screen by Dooley Wilson.

Matched to an eight-minute teaser of key scenes, including snippets of dialogue ( "Here's looking at you, kid") from the original soundtrack, the "Casablanca" Suite was an artfully conceived tribute to the 1942 film that lifted Americans' spirits during World War II.

To open the show, Williams conducted a reprise of his "Tribute to Film Composers," segueing fragments of more than 20 classics ranging from "Citizen Kane" to "ET" - no film clips during the first half of the evening, simply the skillful use of music to fire the imagination and create a figurative screen in the mind's eye. Williams' rarely heard suite from "Far and Away" was followed by Andre Previn's main theme from "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," as arranged by Williams as another showpiece for Smirnova as violin soloist.

Williams inserted the "Devil's Dance" from "The Witches of Eastwick" in memory of author John Updike.

Concluding the first half of the program, Williams' symphonic suite from "ET" included some less familiar portions of the score, performed to perfection by the Pops players with a memorable extended solo by soon-to-retire principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot.

For a rousing finish to the program, Williams launched into his "Superman" March and, following the usual ovations, rewarded the crowd with encores from his score for the 1979 "Dracula" remake (including shots of a young Langella) and from "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Once again, Williams made a winning case for the artistic merit and value of cinematic music, whether heard in a concert setting or as a crucial element of nearly every successful picture.


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