“I’m very lucky.” So said John Williams (by video) Friday night at Symphony Hall, having spent nearly two hours unpacking selected highlights from his 65-year career as a film composer as Keith Lockhart, clad in black shirtsleeves and suspenders, conducted the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. And while luck is always a wild-card factor in any success, it’s hard not to dismiss Williams’s comment as false humility, coming as it does from the man from whom the most indelible movie scores of the last half century poured forth like a fountain.
There’s a reason, after all, that the Pops regularly salute Lockhart’s predecessor — okay, maybe more than one — and the weekend’s programming was devoted to the 91-year-old legend behind the music from that movie. And that one. Yes, that one too. To understand his reach, consider that a child too young to have seen “Jaws” still knows that what Lockhart called “the two most famous notes in movie history” signify “shark.”
Friday served as a sampler of an oeuvre so vast that there wasn’t even space for “E.T.” or “Jurassic Park,” though they both appeared in the montage of Williams-scored films that played over the opening “‘Superman’ March.” (The T. Rex grabbing the velociraptor at the precise moment of a stab of brass was a nice, thrilling touch.) In their place were selections it’s easy to assume are personal favorites of Williams, including the main title from “The Towering Inferno,” which rose up and soared, and the mischievous and playful “Devil’s Dance” from “The Witches of Eastwick,” with its cellos going berserk underneath cracked church bells.
The Pops also nodded to its upcoming Japanese tour (its first in two decades) by featuring the North American debut of violinist Moné Hattori, whose staccato, aggressive bowing danced playfully on her strings for a “Far and Away” suite and whose tremulous phrasing on “The Chairman’s Waltz” (from “Memoirs of a Geisha”) played against a pedal-point harp that descended like a flower petal floating to the ground. Her father Takayuki Hattori’s " Les Enfants De La Terre” was Friday’s only non-Williams selection, though its soft horn swells, warm string pulls, and clear throughline revealed a distinct Williams influence.
If Friday’s program was the hits, Saturday’s was the full-album run-through, focusing exclusively on “Star Wars” music. In his introduction, Lockhart suggested that you could understand what was happening in the films simply by listening to Williams’s evocative scores, and unlike the previous night’s selections from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Harry Potter,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” there was no movie footage accompanying the music. Instead, the Pops let actor Jeremiah Kissel run wild, with breathless narration that encompassed impressions (from Darth Vader to Yoda to a phlegmatic General Grievous), jokes, and occasional good-natured commentary on the silliness of the saga. When he announced that the long-dead Palpatine had somehow returned in “The Rise of Skywalker,” Lockhart interjected with an exasperated “Oh, come on.”
Mostly, though, the program displayed the awesome reach, breadth, and depth of Williams’s 42-year project. The sharp slashes of the gladiatorial “Duel of the Fates,” the courtly and lyrical (with gathering storm clouds) “Across the Stars,” the darting desperation of “Rey’s Theme,” the swooping and grand “Yoda’s Theme,” and the ragtag galumphing of “Parade of the Ewoks” all captured entirely imaginary worlds and creatures with clarity and empathy, to say nothing of the shiver of the main “Star Wars” theme.
“Cantina Band,” an unlisted encore for Friday’s concert, dialed that up to 11. With its loopy clarinets, lush strings, and clonking, whiz-bang percussion, it capitalized on the Pops’ strength as a swing band and seemed like it belonged in a nightclub in Coruscant more than a dive bar in Tatooine. Then again, Williams’s music is at home just about anywhere.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
THE BOSTON POPS: A CELEBRATION OF JOHN WILLIAMS
At Symphony Hall, Friday and Saturday