The Craftsman and the Icon

JOHN DANTE PREVEDINI reports from Tanglewood


On 20 August 2022, Tanglewood presented the George and Roberta Berry concert John Williams - The Tanglewood 90th Birthday Celebration with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ken-David Masur and featuring soloists Yo-Yo Ma, Branford Marsalis, James Taylor, Eric Revis, J William Hudgins, Jessica Zhou and a surprise guest appearance by Itzhak Perlman. The outdoor concert, which took place at the Koussevitzky Music Shed, was sold out to an estimated audience of about eighteen thousand. The total program ran for just over two hours with a brief intermission, and no apparent COVID restrictions were in place, though some of the performers were still masked on stage. The concert, for which Williams himself was present, included a printed program with notes prepared by Robert Kirzinger.

A screenshot from the Boston Symphony Orchestra website advertising the reviewed 20 August 2022 concert
A screenshot from the Boston Symphony Orchestra website advertising the reviewed 20 August 2022 concert

The theme of the evening was a tribute to nothing less than Williams' entire career in music, with a special focus on his relationship with Tanglewood, and the astounding breadth of this theme was accordingly reflected in the thoughtful variety of selections showcased. The program opened with six of his concert works, and the evening concluded with selections from several of his most popular film scores. The second half also featured two performances by James Taylor, whom the program notes describe as 'a longtime John Williams friend and fellow Tanglewood lover' - his rendition of 'Getting to Know You' from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I arranged by Charles Floyd with the BSO and a pared-down performance of his original song 'Sweet Baby James' alongside Yo-Yo Ma.

The concert works that constituted the first half of the program are notable in that - compared with the film score selections that followed - they remain relatively unknown to the public. Thus, the program provided a rare opportunity for general audiences to hear a range of John Williams' compelling concert music that they might not otherwise have had the occasion to encounter. The opening selection was Sound the Bells!, a bright and energetic fanfare which the program notes explain had been originally composed for the Boston Pops' 1993 Japan tour as a piece for brass and percussion only (hence the title's double meaning); this concert's version was an expanded arrangement for full orchestra. Next was the dark and forceful Tributes (for Seiji!), which Kirzinger tells us was composed for the occasion of Seiji Ozawa's twenty-fifth anniversary as BSO music director in 1999. The suspenseful and unpredictable Highwood's Ghost followed, subtitled 'An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra for Jessica Zhou and Yo-Yo Ma'. This piece, according to Kirzinger, was composed in 2018 for the Leonard Bernstein centennial and was named after the allegedly haunted Highwood House, a building on the Tanglewood grounds.

Highwood House
Highwood House

Next was the short movement Pickin' from Three Pieces for Solo Cello (2000), which Yo-Yo Ma indicated in the introduction to his performance was John Williams' empathetic reflection on an imagined experience of being forced to pick cotton for days on end, interweaving layers of compositional material inspired by African American musical traditions into a convoluted and grotesque performance designed to literally make the cellist's hands 'hurt'. This was followed by JUST DOWN WEST STREET...on the left, a brief and energetic fanfare which the program notes indicate was composed for the venue's seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015 and whose name derives from a common direction given to visitors seeking the main entrance to the grounds. Following the intermission was To Lenny! to Lenny! (1988), a brilliant and surprising set of variations on Bernstein's 'New York, New York' theme from On the Town superimposed onto the rhythms of 'America' from his West Side Story.

After this was Escapades, a suite of three selections from the Catch Me If You Can score: I. Closing In, II. Reflections and III. Joy Ride. This score is noteworthy for effectively achieving a fusion of two genres - the orchestral concerto and the jazz trio (in this case, alto saxophone with vibraphone and double bass). The respective featured soloists were Branford Marsalis, J William Hudgins and Eric Revis. After the two selections by James Taylor, the concert concluded with three more selections from Williams' film music - a surprise performance of the Schindler's List main theme with featured soloist Itzhak Perlman, a medley of the throne room music and finale from Star Wars: A New Hope and an encore performance of the Superman main theme.

One of the biggest challenges with any attempt to commemorate the legacy of an artist so influential, so immediate and so omnipresent as John Williams is perhaps the task of conveying a fresh perspective on his work. After all, his film music has become so ubiquitous in the popular consciousness as to have found its way into our common vernacular of cultural references, whether or not we may even be musicians. The undulating Jaws music, the 'Imperial March' motif and the Jurassic Park themes, for instance, have effectively become leitmotivs through which the general public is able to exchange commentary on the events of the day through pure musical metaphor. Conversely, in dedicating so much of this particular program to his comparatively unfamiliar concert music, the event has the effect of curating a portrait of the artist as a craftsman whose work stands on its own beyond the semantic contexts of the cultural tropes (sharks, Darth Vader, dinosaurs, etc) it is so often primarily used to evoke.

Through the concert works, we hear the compositional voice of John Williams in a phenomenologically pure form where his mastery of melodic development, compositional form, orchestral color and programmatic storytelling itself takes center stage. I, for one, am glad to see John Williams' evolving legacy being curated at Tanglewood in this way on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday.

A screenshot from the Boston Symphony Orchestra website advertising the Tanglewood 2022 Season and featuring the Koussevitzky Music Shed
A screenshot from the Boston Symphony Orchestra website advertising the Tanglewood 2022 Season and featuring the Koussevitzky Music Shed

The eighteen thousand audience members, who spent over an hour in standstill traffic simply to turn 'just down West Street...on the left', deserve to know this John Williams - the craftsman without whom there could not be the icon.

Copyright © 25 August 2022 John Dante Prevedini,
Connecticut, USA







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