On Friday and Saturday, Tanglewood will hold celebrations for two maestros of modern show business: Stephen Sondheim and John Williams, both American composers, one for stage and the other for screen. Williams is celebrating his 90th birthday; Sondheim, who died last year, would have been 92.
Sondheim’s career, which will be celebrated on Friday night by the Boston Pops and a cast from Broadway, began spectacularly when, in his 20s, he was offered the job of writing the lyrics to the revolutionary modern musical “West Side Story.” He went on to write both the music and the lyrics to some of the best-known Broadway shows of the second half of the twentieth century: His best-known works include “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “Into the Woods.” Sondheim’s writing style embraced complexity, ambiguity, and darker themes than were traditional in Broadway shows. His most famous song, “Send in the Clowns,” epitomizes this darkness and ambiguity. Sounding like a traditional love song, its melody shifts meters, slides from major into minor, and disguises bitterness and irony.
The 90th birthday of John Williams will be celebrated on Saturday night by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Ken-David Masur and joined by many guest stars. Williams has composed music for television, film, and concert stage. His film scores include those for “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman,” “E.T.,” “Home Alone,” “Indiana Jones,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Harry Potter.” His musical style hearkens back to that of the late Romantic composers, and he has borrowed much from Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Wagner, especially the latter’s technique of associating characters and ideas with musical motifs, such as the suspenseful two-note repetition in “Jaws” or the five-note synthesizer sounds of “Close Encounters.” Other composers whose original ideas Williams has very closely copied include Debussy and Stravinsky for “Jaws,” Gustav Holst for “Star Wars,” and Dvořák for “E.T.” Musicians know this very well. There is a fine line between imitation and plagiarism. On the other hand, as Stravinsky once said: “Good composers borrow; great composers steal.”
Sunday's afternoon concert will feature the music of Unsuk Chin, Max Bruch and Johannes Brahms. In 2020, the world-wide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven was curtailed by the arrival of the pandemic. Many composers wrote tributes for this event. One of them was Chin, whose music is widely performed in her native Korea and across Europe. Her Beethoven tribute “subito, con forza” (a musical performance direction meaning “suddenly, with force”) is short but packed with incident, including some quotations from Beethoven’s own music.
The performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, composed in 1866, will mark the return to Tanglewood of the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman after an absence of over 10 years. Of the four principal German violin concertos (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms) the Bruch concerto has been called “the richest and most seductive,” but it is the least known of the four. This may be because his work was somewhat overshadowed during his lifetime by that of Brahms, a friend, whose music became more popular than his. It may also be a result of Bruch’s music being suppressed in Germany in the '30s and '40s because he was suspected of being Jewish. In fact, he was not, despite having written the beautiful setting for cello and orchestra of the “Kol Nidrei,” the opening prayer of the Jewish Yom Kippur service. The Bruch concerto owes some of its structural procedures to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, written some 20 years earlier, most notably its being cast in a minor key, the immediate entry of the soloist at the beginning of the first movement, its linking of the three movements, and its switch to the major mode for the finale.
Brahms took 20 years to complete his First Symphony, the work that will conclude Sunday’s program at Tanglewood. He suffered from extreme “anxiety of influence” in regard to Beethoven’s work, which he thought was so superb that it left nothing to be done in the realm of musical composition. In the end he conquered his anxiety, sublimating Beethoven’s accomplishments into his own style, casting his first symphonic work in Beethoven’s favorite key, and even imitating the chorale theme of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the last movement of his First.
In this work Brahms displays the fully developed voice of his own, with its surging crosscurrents of rhythm, the long-limbed themes, and the richness and complexity of the inner voices. At the age of 43, he had paid his debt to his great forebear and was able to match him in originality, architecture and expression.
UNDER THE SHED
A look at Tanglewood concerts at the Koussevitzky Music Shed this week ...
8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 19: Remembering Stephen Sondheim
Keith Lockhart, the Boston Pops, and a stellar Broadway cast take us on a journey through Keith’s favorite Sondheim creations, from the ground-breaking contributions of "Follies and Company," to the organic perfection of shows like "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd" and the audacity of later works like "Assassins."
Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Ticket includes admission to the 6 p.m. prelude concert.
10:30 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 20: Rehearsal: Dima Slobodeniouk conducts Unsuk Chin, Bruch, and Brahms featuring Itzhak Perlman, violin
Gates open at 9 a.m.
8 p.m.. Saturday, Aug. 20: John Williams – The Tanglewood 90th Birthday Celebration
Tanglewood celebrates the 90th birthday of one of its most beloved figures, John Williams, in a special program featuring a selection of his incomparable concert music composed for the BSO and Boston Pops, along with beloved film themes.
This event is sold out. Ticket holders are encouraged to arrive early, as parking lots will fill up quickly and the grounds will be very busy.
2:30 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 21: Dima Slobodeniouk conducts Unsuk Chin, Bruch, and Brahms featuring Itzhak Perlman, violin
Program includes Unsuk Chin's "subito con forza," Max Bruch's Violin Concerto in G minor and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68.
Gates open at noon.