Tanglewood on Parade: Musical giant, John Williams, feted

Thursday August 5, 2010

LEN0X - Grand celebrations and tributes are among Tanglewood's many hallowed traditions - the Leonard Bernstein 70th birthday gala in 1988 comes to mind, along with the "Three Birthdays" salute to Seiji Ozawa, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma in 1995 (the year they turned 60, 50 and 40 respectively).

As a benefit for the Boston Symphony's summer academy for young professionals, Tanglewood on Parade has been an annual celebratory occasion since 1950. On Tuesday evening, it provided the ideal setting for a gala to honor that most unassuming musical giant, John Williams, artist-in-residence for his 30th summer here.

His catalog of honored film scores exceeds 100, but in many respects he's two distinctly different composers rolled into one, given his long list of concert-hall works, often designated for leading soloists and for special occasions.

The Boston Symphony, Boston Pops and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra took their customary turns on stage, with four conductors, including Williams, presiding over a generous, two and a half hour program. Ma and James Taylor, both long-time collaborators and close friends of Williams, made cameo appearances. Except for Taylor's classic "Sweet Baby James" accompanied by Ma and what Keith Lockhart described as a "little ditty by Tchaikovsky," it was an all-Williams sampling of his film and concert works.

Among the many musical pleasures to savor was the honoree's suite from "JFK," Oliver Stone's semi-fictional 1991 film.

While the main theme is familiar (its trumpet and horn solos especially haunting as performed by the BSO's Thomas Rolfs and Richard Sebring), the less frequently-heard motorcade and Arlington sequences resonated with a fiercely chilling, chaotically kinetic, percussive impact followed by an elegiac threnody for strings. The Boston Pops led by Lockhart delivered a compelling, sensitive account.

Three of Williams' familiar cues for the "Harry Potter" films were performed with intense commitment by the young TMC players led by Stefan Asbury, who coordinates the orchestra's conducting program. The strings, in particular, tore into this fanciful score with maximum gusto.

A distinguished TMC vocal fellow, soprano Elizabeth Baldwin, made great sport out of the quirky, witty and wise lyrics in three selections of Williams' "Seven for Luck" song cycle based on texts by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, backed by Asbury and the TMC Orchestra. Once again, the composer's wide-ranging versatility was on display to great effect in this seldom-performed concert piece.

The brief "For New York," variations on themes by Bernstein written by Williams for that 1988 Tanglewood celebration, was dispatched with panache by the BSO led by the highly-regarded outgoing Assistant Conductor Julian Kuerti, a James Levine protege who has saved many a day for the orchestra.

Having listened from the audience during the program's first half (standing for a bow at Lockhart's urging early on), Williams emerged to the usual hero's welcome to lead the BSO and Ma in music from his "Memoirs of a Geisha," a light and rhythmically vivacious score that draws heavily on Japanese stylistic touches and instrumentation.

In brief yet heartfelt remarks before launching into what he called the "seemingly inexhaustible '1812' Overture," Williams paid eloquent tribute to Tanglewood, "this magical, ingenious idea" and, with characteristic modesty, noted that it has been "the privilege of my life to be a very small part of it." He thanked the orchestra players "for putting up with me for 30 years."

In fact, he has played a major role here (including a record-setting 30 consecutive appearances at Tanglewood on Parade), as chronicled in a brilliant video portrait assembled by documentary producer Susan Dangel that combined historic film and stills depicting memorable, magical moments. The accompanying music was his atmospheric "Hymn to New England," conducted by Lockhart.

The nine hours of festivities that began with TMC string and wind performers offering sterling accounts of two Dvorak Serenades at Ozawa Hall and Boston University Tanglewood Institute choristers and musicians demonstrating their talents in the Shed ended with close to 200 BSO and TMC players crowding the stage for the "1812" led by Williams.

The glorious, cannon-fueled racket sent the audience of perhaps 10,000 into the usual paroxysms of delight. while the prolonged, vivid fireworks display launched around 11 p.m. probably startled some early-to-bed denizens of Lenox and Stockbridge.

Williams will be back on Aug. 14 for Film Night, the event he launched in 1998, to salute his fruitful collaboration with Steven Spielberg. At 78, and showing no signs of flagging energy either in his composing or conducting, Williams remains a most-honored member of the extended BSO and Tanglewood family. He's often spotted walking the grounds during periodic off-season visits to the Berkshires for composing retreats; long may he continue to offer us vivid and compelling musical close encounters.


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