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Pops Pays Tribute to John Williams


John Williams and Keith Lockhart (Hilary Scott photo)

Anticipating a subsequent concert featuring John Williams’s conducting the premier of his new violin concerto for Anne Sophie Mutter [my review HERE], Friday’s Pops extravaganza surely seemed a perfect choice to honor Williams’s dominance in the genre that has made him the most-heard contemporary movie composer in the world. Many listeners surely anticipated the precise selections that would be on such a program—and, to be sure, many of the favorite selections that we had all heard in cinemas for the last half century were included. Not everything, to be sure, and some surprises came from less well known or less well remembered film scores.

Of course, few orchestras have more familiarity with John Williams’s music than our Pops, both from the 13-year period when he was their music director and from the subsequent years under the Keith Lockhart. His music has been a welcome part of probably the majority of Pops concerts of the last 40 years. But this show offered an unusual survey of both familiar and relatively unfamiliar selections, some supplemented by video clips, or introduced by filmed excerpts from an interview with the composer giving an account of the some of the music came to be conceived. Harlow Robinson excellent essay in the program book offered still further background.

It is likely that many members of the large and enthusiastic crowd came with the expectation of hearing specific favorite pieces, and, on the whole, there expectations would have been fulfilled. The program opened with one of Williams’s characteristic thrilling march themes—in this case, from Superman. This opening selection was accompanied by a rapid survey of photographs of the composer’s life, from boyhood to his current age, eighty-nine, with most stages in between: recording film scores, the newspaper announcement of his appointment as Pops conductor, award presentations, busy composing at his desk in what he calls the “old-fashioned way” with pencil on lined score paper.

The overall program was deftly arranged to provide a broad selection from different musical styles and to include some less well-known or even, perhaps, forgotten works, such as his early television score for Heidi or the main title to The Towering Inferno. One amusing anecdote told be Williams in conjunction with the latter was when, upon first hearing the score in connection with the film, the producer or director announced that the music “wouldn’t work”—but with no specific indication of what he found wrong with it. A friend dropped the hint in the composer’s ear that the problem was in the opening credits, where this individual’s name appeared without any special indication in the music. Adding an emphatic chord with a cymbal crash that the moment made everything satisfactory. He also spoke about coming up with the two-note theme from Jaws, consisting of a steady rhythmic repetition of low E and F, with the gradual addition of other low-pitched, dark-sounding instruments. Many composers of used a rhythmic ostinato of a tiny musical atom like the E-F, but this one has retained its place in the memory of millions as a cue to shiver in terror.

In excerpts from the video interview, Williams offered comments about his recent score for Memoirs of a Geisha and his encounter with traditional Japanese musical instruments. The selection “Sayuri’s Theme” from that score, in its setting for the Pops, featured a cello solo beautifully realized by Oliver Aldort. Two other selections featured solo performers. Thomas Rolfs movingly dispatched the aching trumpet solo reflecting one’s feelings about the assassinated president in JFK. And since the poignant theme from Schindler’s List, in Williams’s explanation, featured strings predominantly, because of the violin’s strong association with Jewish players, he decided to write for one of the greatest Jewish violinists in the world, Itzhak Perlman. Concertmaster Alexander Velinson milked it for all the sadness the theme suggested.

A striking contrast to those scores responding to historical tragedy came in the sardonic “Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick,  a witty, “evil” waltz theme of considerable wit.

The closer comprised four selections from different themes of the Star Wars series featuring Han Solo, Yoda, and Rey, were followed by what was surely the one Williams score that everyone expected in the program—the one theme that put him on the map worldwide—the main title from Star Wars.

The enthusiastic audience gave long and resounding applause until conductor Lockhart signaled for an encore, the popular, quirky music from the ensemble in the cantina in the original Star Wars film, suggesting what a jazz combo might sound like a long time ago in a galaxy far away—though here is was updated to create the full orchestral sound of the Boston Pops.

Just when the end seemed in sight, Lockhart called for one more encore, this one filled with a lively series of clips from all of the adventure films about an unlikely archeologist tracking rare historical prizes and experiencing a non-stop series of risky adventures at every turn. It is safe to say that the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark, accompanied by clips of dozens of heroic moments in all four films, truly brought the house down.

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.

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