Review: John Williams takes concertgoers on a journey 'Across the Stars' at Tanglewood
LENOX — Since 1980, when his 13-year tenure as Boston Pops conductor began, John Williams has been among the most popular and revered figures in the pantheon of BSO, Tanglewood and Hollywood greats.
At 87, honored with more Academy Award nominations for his scores and songs than any other film composer (he won five, as well as 24 Grammys), he has cut back on conducting. Thus, his "Across the Stars: Music of John Williams" concert on Sunday afternoon promised to be a special event.
Certainly, it exceeded expectations, showcasing the German violin virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter in most of the tracks from their forthcoming album of the same title, recorded with the 70 Los Angeles studio musicians chosen by the composer (dubbed "The Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles"), for release Aug. 30.
The concert featured JW's re-orchestrations for Mutter of more than a dozen themes ranging from various "Star Wars" Episodes, "Schindler's List" and "Harry Potter" to rarely encountered segments from "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Far and Away," "Dracula," "The Witches of Eastwick," the 1995 remake of "Sabrina" and his early score of "Cinderella Liberty" (1973).
Concluding the already generous scheduled program, Williams told the cheering audience, "Thank you, this was fun."
So much fun that, in response to the prolonged ovation, he returned for not one, not two, but four encores. Remarkably, he conducted non-stop for 90 minutes, spry and energetic, galvanizing the BSO players to inspired performances, interspersed with charming anecdotes and reminiscences.
Williams had mounted the podium after intermission, since David Newman, a noted composer in his own right — credited with 110-plus scores as well as concert-hall works — led the first 45 minutes. As the son of Alfred Newman, who scored more than 200 films from the 1930s through the 1960s, he's also an adept conductor, as he has demonstrated at Tanglewood, Boston's Symphony Hall and other orchestras.
As one might expect, no one conducts Williams' music like the composer. Despite his initial skepticism about adapting his scores for an iconic violinist like Mutter, he explained how they first met during a Tanglewood weekend several years ago.
Since he had crafted showpieces for Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham and Yo-Yo Ma, among others, "she asked me to write at least nine measures of music for her," Williams recalled. Although too busy, after receiving a box of Bavarian Christmas cookies from Mutter, "I felt great guilt," he confessed.
To atone: An eight-minute work for solo violin, strings and harp called "Markings," premiered two summers ago at Tanglewood by Mutter with BSO music director Andris Nelsons. "The new piece was warm-hued and lyrical, its generous spirit calling forth a like spirit from soloist, conductor and orchestra," Eagle classical music critic Andrew L. Pincus wrote.
Emboldened, Mutter stepped up her campaign to overcome Williams' resistance. "I told her you can't play `Star Wars' on the violin, but I became intrigued by the idea," he acknowledged. "Anne-Sophie is many things, one of the world's greatest violinists, an ambassador for new music, a great representative of her country, but she's not a woman you can say `no' to."
Thus, the recording project and Sunday's premiere of most of the tracks from the forthcoming album. Mutter navigated the challenging re-workings of Williams' best-known scores with her customary impeccable technique, warmth, aplomb and brilliance, while offering heartfelt, deeply-felt performances of the evocative "Across the Stars" from "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones," as well as romantic themes from "Sabrina," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Cinderella Liberty."
The quartet of encores included the haunting "Yoda's Theme" from "Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back," and "Remembrances" from "Schindler's List," which Williams described as his favorite segment, "but Steven Spielberg liked the Main Theme better." With orchestra only, he regaled the audience with the main-title themes of "Star Wars IV: A New Hope" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
In all, a memorable, inspired and energetic collaboration between violinist and composer, meant-to-be since Mutter, now 55, has written of falling in love with Williams' "Star Wars" music while growing up in Germany's Black Forest: "These are melodies which touch us so deeply, they just stay with you. That's the wonderful thing about John's music — even without the film it has a life of its own. What he writes is just extraordinary. And now I have his wonderful translations of all these iconic themes."
Newman returns to Tanglewood on Aug. 24 for the annual John Williams Film Night, with the composer, still the Pops Conductor Laureate and Tanglewood's Artist-in-Residence, listed as host. One hopes Williams will be moved to conduct a bit as a special reward for his most appreciative admirers during 39 years at Tanglewood, which he has called his spiritual home.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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