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Tanglewood Bash for John Williams’s 90th

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Branford Marsalis (Hilary Scott photo)

Saturday night’s traffic in the Berkshires grew unusually heavier as one approached Tanglewood. The long lines of cars on the roads from Lenox and Stockbridge to the Tanglewood grounds was so heavy that the start time needed to be delayed. Three days earlier, Tanglewood had announced that the maximum number of tickets allowed—even including seating on the great lawn—had been reached at 18,000. What may well be the largest audience ever gathered at Tanglewood for a classical concert assembled to celebrate the composer who may well be the best-known in the world. Though John Williams turned 90 on February 8th, he has been widely celebrated throughout the year. And here, near the end of the Tanglewood season, came the perfect opportunity for a celebration by the orchestra with which he has been connected in 1980, when he was named conductor of the Boston Pops.

Now here is a thought experiment: if you were tasked with choosing a program of music to be played by your orchestra on this festive occasion, and with John Williams present, what would you include? Surely 99% of the orchestras in the world would list all the most popular passages from the many film scores—music filled with exciting tunes, swelling orchestral sonorities, golden brass themes, exciting rhythmic pulsations. Surely any music lover and filmgoer could instantly name a dozen super-famous themes that would be likely to fill such a program.

The Boston Symphony chose to take an entirely different direction because it is surely the only orchestra in the world that could fill a concert program almost entirely with music written for its components (especially the Pops, of course) and for members of the orchestra and some of its most frequent and honored guests. This was a unique program entirely different from any other celebration of John Williams this year.

The huge audience—especially those who came with young children—surely assumed that the evening would be a medley of lollipops, and they may have been surprised to realize that many of them had never heard any of this music before, with the obvious exception of the last item on the printed program, the “Throne Room and Finale” from the very first Star Wars film, now identified as the fourth in George Lukas’s original sequence. That is the film that carried John Williams’ name all around the world. Other favorites appeared as surprise encores in the late stages of the program.

The evening was conducted by Ken-David Masur, who was a Tanglewood conducting fellow. Not long after, he became Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony, from which he was named Music Director of the Milwaukee Symphony. He presents a lean and lithe figure, with a clear beat and careful attention to dynamics. His regular commissioning and conducting of new works made him an appropriate and effective leader for a program that consisted of so many recent compositions.

Williams had composed the festive opening piece Sound the Bells! For performance on the first tour to Japan of the Boston Pops in 1993. He employed a large percussion section, mostly with brilliant bell sounds, evoking the giant bells in Japanese temples.

For Seiji is one of several works of musical tributes, this time to celebrate Seiji Ozawa’s 25th anniversary as music director of the Boston Symphony in 1999.

Highwood’s Ghost is described in the score as “An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra for Jessica Zhou and Yo-Yo Ma. It was written to celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s centennial. And the title has a little Bernstein history behind it. Highwood is the name of an estate contiguous Tanglewood; it was owned privately unto the last survivors of the family that had lived there for generations decided to sell, giving the right of first refusal to the Boston Symphony, because it offered such an opportunity to expand parking areas and eventually Ozawa Hall and the Linde Center. The home on the estate, Highwood itself, housed some BSO offices, rehearsal rooms, and elegant dining on Tanglewood weekends. An incident that occurred shortly after the Highwood estate became BSO property, Leonard Bernstein was teaching a class in one of the rooms, when he suddenly waved his hands in front of him as if fending off something, and he declared that a ghost had just passed him. The story of a haunted Highwood was reported in news stories and even made it onto national television news. The rumor sparked a great deal of conversation, which large died down after someone pointed out that the old building had some dumbwaiters—small elevator shafts between the floors that allowed drafts to get into a room that might be entirely closed up. This seems to have been the “ghost’—a less romantic account. John Williams kept to the older story that allowed for a few chills. He composed it for cello and harp, with the orchestra. Yo-Yo Ma and Jessica Zhou performed it during the week in August 2018, in which concerts commemorated the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth.

Yo-Yo Ma and James Taylor (Hilary Scott photo)

Yo-Yo Ma remained on the stage to offer one movement of the three that John Williams had written in 2000 to “reflect the powerful and historic African American experience.” For Pickin’ he turned the cello into a quasi-banjo, suggesting, in his own way, the character of the music brought from Africa and recreated on the banjo in this country, though he did it with a full knowledge of Ma’s virtuosity on his somewhat different instrument.

The first half closed with a set of musical driving directions to the question frequently asked in Lenox: “How do I get to Tanglewood?” Aside from the obvious answer (“Practice!”), the one most often given at the center of Lenox is JUST DOWN WEST STREET…on the left. This was John Williams’s gift to the Tanglewood Music Center on its 75th anniversary in 2015. It provides a lively ride, but not one that literally suggests the trip from Lenox to Tanglewood, because it is only about two miles. Essentially downhill. Williams’s piece has more activity than a quiet coasting downward–but perhaps it suggests also the anticipatory excitement generated by the trip.

To Lenny! To Lenny! Was written for the four-day Bernstein bash celebrating the composer’s 70th birthday in 1988. A group of composer friends of the dedicatee was invited to composer a set of variations to the opening song of Bernstein’s first show, On the Town (1944), the song being a vivid paean to the city in which he spent most of his life: New York, New York!

Catch Me If You Can is a light comedy with a John Williams score that is largely jazz oriented, and with smaller ensembles than the colorful scores of  the best-known scores. For a taste of that approach, a jazz trio made up of Branford Marsalis (alto saxophone), J. William Hudgins (BSO percussionist playing the vibraphone), and Eric Revis (double bass). The three-movement suite Escapades captures three moments in the career of a remarably successful confidence man; the flowing slippery character of the jazz trio hints at the protagonist’s evasive life. It also served as an excellent reminder of John Williams’s own jazz qualifications

At this point, the nature pf the program changed, with the arrival onstaged of James Taylor, who lives near Tanglewood and has sung there annually for many years. He is also an old friend of John Williams. He offered two songs: “Getting to Know You” from The King and I, which he introduced with a political joke about the FBI investigation of Mar-A-Lago two weeks earlier, to loud laughter and applause, then a song that he sings every time he is at Tanglewood, “Sweet Baby James,” this time with Yo-Yo Ma adding his solo cello as accompaniment to Taylor’s guitar.

There were four non-musical elements to the program. At various times during the evening, the cinema screen over the conductor’s head came down to show a video greeting from four o John Williams’s friends and admirers:  Andris Nelsons, Gustavo Dudamel, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Stephen Spielberg, who pointed out Williams’s 64 years of composing for films and 50 years that the two of them have collaborated on films.

John Williams takes a bow. (Hilary Scott photo)

At this point the surprises not listed in the program occurred. Itzhak Perlman turned his aching lyricism to the theme from Schindler’s List. There was only one piece left on the program listing, so when Ken-David Masur raised his baton, everyone expected the closing music of Star Wars. And just before the downbeat the cinema screen came down again. This time, accompanying the Superman March, a series of photographs of John Williams from boyhood to the present day, covering the many aspects of his life and work.

Then, as the program suggested, Masur led the Star Wars music with energy and elan. The audience, not surprisingly, stood en masse and cheered to the echo, redoubling the acclamation as their hero finally came on stage to acknowledge the crowd and to offer hugs and handshakes to all participants. After several repetitions, waves to the audience, smiles all round, he left the stage, and it appeared that the remarkable evening was over. But those who noticed that the members of the orchestra had subtly shuffled music on their stands would have had a suspicion of what came next.

Yes, once again, the 90-year-old composer entered one more time, and now he climbed onto the podium, with his baton, and gave a firm downbeat to start the march theme from Riders of the Lost Ark. After that final celebration of heroic adventure, the long and remarkable evening came to an end, with expressions of elevation all around.

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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