LENOX — Tanglewood conjured up some Hollywood high gloss this weekend as some 18,000 listeners streamed onto festival grounds Saturday night for an 80th birthday tribute to John Williams. It was one part confetti-strewn spectacle, one part multi-genre musical survey, and one part lavish homage to the man whose music has defined for so many listeners the glittering ideal of the romantic film score.
The night began with another Williams — Brian, of “NBC Nightly News” — in a faux newscast that called the party to order. Subsequent surprise video tributes came from President Obama, George Lucas, Bill Clinton, and Seiji Ozawa. The US Army Herald Trumpets fanned out across the stage in full ceremonial regalia; Jessye Norman both emceed portions of the night and sang “The Song Is You.” James Taylor appeared (with BSO cellist Owen Young) to sing “You’ve Got a Friend.” Steven Spielberg also made a surprise showing to toast Williams, calling him “the single most significant contributor” to Spielberg’s own success as a filmmaker.
Between tributes the Boston Pops, under the batons of Keith Lockhart and Leonard Slatkin, surveyed some of Williams’s best-loved creations, with excerpts from the scores to “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “E.T.” With their mythic sweep and cultural ubiquity, these scores tend to overshadow most of Williams’s other accomplishments, including a substantial catalog of music written for concert halls that do not happen to be convening a Boston Pops-style film night. It was therefore good to see Shi-Yeon Sung, former BSO assistant conductor, back on the podium leading movements excerpted from three different Williams concertos, with BSO players Keisuke Wakao (oboe), James Sommerville (horn), and Mike Roylance (tuba) taking up the respective solo parts. That these works sound nothing like Williams’s film music, and not even much like one another, pointed up the remarkable range and fluidity of his compositional craft.
In yet another category, Williams’s “Air and Simple Gifts,” written for President Obama’s inauguration, seems to combine various strands of the composer’s musical personality, and Saturday night’s nuanced performance was a highlight of the evening, with violinist Gil Shaham joining three of the musicians who performed at the 2009 inauguration: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and pianist Gabriela Montero.
Boston Pops, BSO, TMC Orchestra
“Air and Simple Gifts” is of course a treatment of the Shaker hymn made famous by Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” and having the latter work present on Friday night’s program brought at least a hint of a link between the two evenings. Bramwell Tovey led the BSO in a lucid, texturally rich account of the Copland, a performance that fared far better than the loose-limbed reading of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony after intermission. Between the two works came the BSO debut of the German-born violinist Augustin Hadelich, who played Barber’s Violin Concerto with solid technique and flamboyant emotionalism, and then capped his performance with an encore, Paganini’s knuckle-busting Caprice No. 24, that earned him a hearty ovation.
Sunday afternoon, the students of the Tanglewood Music Center bid farewell by way of the annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert. It was immediately noticeable that Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a conductor whose vigorous martial bearing typically belies his 80 years, seemed to be conserving his energy more cautiously than usual, and chose to lead from a stool. Shaham was back on stage as the afternoon’s soloist in an affably sunny and rather frictionless performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
After intermission, Frühbeck de Burgos’s account of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was short on atmosphere and inflection, but the TMC Orchestra still played with heat and robust commitment, as if this were its last performance. And so it was.