When Keith Lockhart conducts the Boston Pops, his approach is that of a genial host. Laureate conductor John Williams, on the other hand, is more soft-spoken when he deigns to speak at all. At Friday’s sold-out Film Night concert at Symphony Hall, he largely let the program do the talking for him. Then again, such humility may have been a smokescreen. Conducting his own compositions almost exclusively (with a brief sideline of movie dance music), Williams may not have talked much, but he said plenty.
The program did a canny job of highlighting many of the threads running through the composer’s work while offering a glimpse at a versatility occasionally taken for granted. There was majesty to spare in his themes for “Jurassic Park,” the 2002 Winter Olympics, and (prompting some to chuckle with recognition) “NBC Nightly News,” and glockenspiel was presented throughout as an essential accessory.
Selections from his “Hook” and “Empire Of The Sun” scores, meanwhile, recast his perpetual subject of the soaring human spirit in more literal terms of flight. Williams also offered somber reflection in “With Malice Toward None” from “Lincoln” and the elegiac “Hymn To The Fallen” from “Saving Private Ryan,” performed on the 70th anniversary of D-day.
But the unexpected highlight might have been two excerpts from “Memoirs of a Geisha,” whose tepid critical and financial fortunes make Williams’s score all the riper for discovery. The exquisite “Sayuri’s Theme” never revealed more than a little at a time, with the woodwinds gently echoing cellist Martha Babcock’s lines before the roles imperceptibly switched. Built largely on the interplay between percussion and Babcock’s cello, “Brush On Silk” was meticulously controlled yet fervent, capturing the feeling of freedom and the headlong discovery of power.
Williams ended with such a murderer’s row of blockbuster franchises like “Harry Potter” that he could choose from the much-maligned “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and still meet his Indiana Jones quota. But still the entire orchestra went into the full trill at the start of the “Star Wars” theme and the strings shuddered beneath the horns’ glare in “The Imperial March.” Williams knew better than to skip those.