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At Tanglewood, a showcase of John Williams’s strengths

Composer John Williams with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, performing his Violin Concerto No. 2 with the BSO during a dress rehearsal on July 22 at Tanglewood.Hilary Scott

LENOX — Once upon a time, the combination of live orchestral film music with footage from those films was a novelty. Nowadays, it’s about as unusual as peanut butter and jelly. But when the Boston Pops struck up John Williams’s fanfare from “Superman,” the screen above the stage of the Koussevitzky Music Shed showed not the adventures of the Man of Steel, but a rapid-fire montage of the life and times of the Pops laureate conductor — working at his desk, brandishing his baton on the podium at Symphony Hall, Tanglewood, and the steps of the US Capitol, smiling from the front page of the Boston Globe circa 1980 after being named the successor to Arthur Fiedler. From the stage, Pops conductor Keith Lockhart proclaimed him “perhaps the best known composer living on the planet today. ” Superman, who?

The sheer quantity of Williams’s film music is impressive enough, but even more so is its unwavering high quality no matter the genre. War epics, historical tragedies, space opera, adaptation of a children’s fantasy novel-turned-empire: he‘s written for them all. A Williams score harmonizes with its film without fading into musical wallpaper, as is the style with most big-budget films of recent years; this is why if you were born any time after roughly 1960, you can probably credit him with a few sounds of your childhood. His arsenal of themes for the “Star Wars” series has trained generations of listeners to recognize leitmotifs — musical phrases connected to a character, a place, or a concept — without even knowing it. (Eat your heart out, Richard Wagner.)


What’s more, listening to Williams’s film music is rewarding even out of context. The “Jaws” theme has attained such memetic status that it can never escape self-parody at this point. But Friday’s concert also offered the main theme from “JFK,” with the angelic trumpet solo played to clarion perfection by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs; concertmaster Alexander Velinzon giving the “Schindler’s List” theme raw gravitas; the sections of the orchestra playing musical hot potato with the mischievous melody during the “Devil’s Dance” from “The Witches of Eastwick;” and the main title from “Star Wars,” which closed out the planned program with big brass bombast at its best. It was my first orchestral concert since March 5, 2020, and I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to have my bones rattled by a symphony orchestra turned up to 11.

When the composer mounted the stage for a final bow after two encores, I wondered if he might take the podium for a surprise encore of one of his top hits (“E.T.”? “Imperial March?”). No such luck: Anyone who wanted to see him actually conduct had to come back the next night for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s world premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 2, written for violinist and commissioning champion Anne-Sophie Mutter.


Williams’s concert music may always lie in the vast shadow of his film scores, understandably so. It’d be hard to top the outsize impact his music has had on popular culture — so on the opposite hand, concert music purists who might turn their noses up at his Hollywood bonafides may be inclined to reject anything with his name on it.

This is certain: No one could mistake this kitchen-sink concerto for film music. Many of Williams’s signature elements (sonic textures deceptively simple in their fullness, distinctive and evocative timbres) were present in abundance, so much so that I sometimes felt like I was listening to several of his scores at the same time. However, absent were the memorable melodies that form the foundation of his most enduring works. At times, this approach was fascinating — almost a glimpse of what might have been had Williams’s career played out in the concert hall rather than on the silver screen. More often, I noticed myself longing for leitmotifs.


But above all, I wanted to hear it again, especially if that meant I’d see Mutter perform. Even in this premiere performance, Mutter carried the solo like an old friend, shaping each phrase with intention and panache. As a performer, she is unafraid of her instrument’s thornier sounds, and the violent triple-time dance of the third movement saw her reveling in them.

As an encore, Williams led the BSO and Mutter in “Across the Stars,” the love theme from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” a much lovelier melody than that movie’s limp romantic subplot deserved.

The back half of the concert put music director Andris Nelsons on the podium for a study in contrasts. First came Copland’s “Quiet City,” cool and contemplative. Drifting on top of the strings, Rolfs and principal English horn Robert Sheena subtly shaded their solos with melancholy and hope. The evening closed out with Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his ballet “The Firebird.” Nelsons’s affinity for Russian ballet music isn’t as often talked about as his love for Shostakovich and Strauss, but perhaps it should be. Directing woodwind pyrotechnics, a mesmerizing round dance, and a “Danse infernale” that made multiple audience members jump out of their seats, Nelsons conducted with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning. If the evening’s opening number, Jessie Montgomery’s vibrantly scored “Starburst,” had been graced with even half that energy, the performance would have been much more memorable for the right reasons. As it was played, it faded without fanfare.



At Tanglewood, Lenox. July 23-24. tanglewood.org

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.