Keith Lockhart took the reins of the Boston Pops in 1995, but if he thought that he would have been able to orchestrate a clean break from his predecessor after two decades and change, he was clearly mistaken. That can happen when said predecessor is John Williams, composer of a movie or two that you’ve seen. So rather than resist, the Pops leaned in Wednesday at Symphony Hall, kicking off a spring season celebrating Williams’s music.
But first, the Russians. Tchaikovsky’s “Festival Coronation March” started the season by filling the air with regal brass exhortations and crashing cymbals. Next came two selections from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” With flowing violins yielding their theme to soft woodwinds that then yielded to the lower strings, “The Young Prince And The Young Princess” gave way to the turbid waters of “Festival at Baghdad/The Sea,” always roiling underneath even as the surface appeared calm.
The Williams segment consisted of two movie themes that are buried deep within our collective cultural consciousness and two that aren’t. Selections from “Superman” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” offered a familiar full-hearted wonder, while “Sabrina” was tenderly romantic, with reeded woodwinds running quietly through like an underground river. With the stage bathed in orange and red light, the theme from “The Towering Inferno” was more chaotic and urgent. Seventies’ touches like vaguely sodden strings and a drum kit locked it into its era, but its ratatat brass driving toward a warm, humanistic empathy was wholly Williams.
That empathy was also wholly Queen Latifah, who entered with the instantly ingratiating big-band shuffle of “I Love Being Here With You.” Although the defiantly confident “U.N.I.T.Y.” showed off her hip-hop roots, several of her songs were 1970s-style R&B with a hint of funk. For “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” she made like disco-era Aretha, while “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” burned with attitude.
But she was equally effective laying back as bass and drums slowly tapped “Georgia Rose” forward, and she sang Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man” — all gentle drops of electric guitar with the orchestra fluttering behind — with the commitment of someone performing her mother’s favorite song. And a showstopping “I Know Where I’ve Been” found her standing strong with a clear-eyed understanding of the stakes, as Lockhart and the Pops rose up behind her to amplify her power instead of adding their own.
Afterward, there was nothing left to do but unfurl the flag for traditional closer “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The Boston Pops: Opening Night, with Queen Latifah
At Symphony Hall, May 10Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.