Last Sunday’s absolutely perfect weather would have drawn a substantial crowd to Tanglewood no matter what and who was on the program. But in this case, since it involved the Boston Pops performing an entire program of John Williams’s music, with the composer conducting half of it with Anne-Sophie Mutter (who, the night before, had locally debuted the Andre Previn violin concerto written in her honor), a very large and responsive crowd materialized.
This “all-Williams” selections differed in an important way from others. Other than a number of familiar standards of the Williams oeuvre, the bulk of the program—12 numbers in the official listing—consisted of arrangements Williams had made for orchestra and solo violin at the request of Anne-Sophie Mutter, works that they have recently recorded, so that the concert was, in effect, a first hearing of the new disk.
In his half of the concert, John Williams explained how this music had come about: About a dozen years ago, Anne-Sophie Mutter asked him to arrange some of his music for her. At first, he said, he was surprised, wondering how such a thing could be done. “Star Wars calls for trumpets, and Leia’s Theme is for horn,” he explained. But that Christmas he received a large packet of Christmas goodies from Munich (“I didn’t think I even knew anyone in Munich.”), but, of course, it was from the violinist. Upon eating a Christmas cookie, he suddenly found himself laden with guilt. He had not yet written anything for Anne-Sophie. “There are many things you can say about Anne-Sophie Mutter,” he explained. “She is a magnificent artist, she is a wonderful mother, she represents her country all over the world—but she is not a woman you can say ‘No’ to.”
Eventually, as the concert showed, he found his way to writing the music for her, but rethinking the passages from his music quite substantially as the basis for a significant violin solo, often quite virtuosic (given the brilliance of the intended soloist), such as in the “Donnybrook” from Far and Away, which captured the Irish spirit of the rousing scene but offered a violin part that suggested the boggling technique of a Paganini. Princess Leia’s theme may originally have featured a warm, mellow horn solo, but in this version the wonderful songfulness of the violin took over.
“The Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick danced a comic gigue with all the diablerie one could wish for in orchestral color, and with Mutter as the witch in charge. Williams explained one number before playing it: “Sayuri’s Theme” from Memoirs of a Geisha represented a battle with rapiers — and as the lively number ended, conductor and violinist took poses as fencers in a “ready” position with his baton and her violin bow.
In all, the show comprised four groups of three solo numbers, with the Pops alone playing the orchestral numbers that are among the best-known pieces of music today. David Newman, the son of Alfred Newman, and a more recent participant in the Newman family business of movie scores, led the first half. (Both the late father and the son have been or remain long-time friends of Williams.)
Newman began with a less-familiar Star Wars selection, Galaxy’s Edge, followed by the theme from Jurassic Park. Anne-Sophie Mutter came on for her first set: she played the Williams arrangements in four groups of three pieces, two sets on each half.
When John Williams entered for the closing half, a roaring ovation ensued before he could give the downbeat for the Superman March. Between the solo sets on his half, he led the flying music from E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial. Following the official program, the soloist played two encores (including “Remembrance,” from Schindler’s List). For the first encore with the orchestra alone, Williams gave the downbeat for the piece that everyone, surely, had been expecting all afternoon. At least that is the sense provided from the roar of approval and the sight of hundreds of people rising out of their seats upon the first sounds of the Star Wars theme. And in the end, after full and varied program followed by no fewer than four encores, the conductor completed the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme by turning to the audience and waving “bye-bye,” then miming putting his head on a pillow to sleep.
Little needs to be said about the performance. The best-known Pops selections have been heard very often under the baton of the composer-conductor; there is hardly anything in the repertory more easily considered a sure thing. But the new arrangements for Anne-Sophie Mutter offer something fresh and delightful. Thoroughly varied in style and sonority, they are often based on his lesser-known film scores: Dracula, The Adventures of Tin-Tin, Sabrina, and the aforementioned Memoirs of a Geisha, Far and Away, the early and almost completely unknown Cinderella Liberty (John Williams explained to the audience what it was), as well as the exceptionally familiar Star Wars and Harry Potter.
The fascinating encounter with a composer’s rethinking of his work, and again with one of the world’s leading violinists showing off the range (very full!) of her art, provided a lovely and memorable afternoon.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.