Symphony Hall, Boston, MA
Thursday, May 11, Friday, May 12 & Tuesday, May 16, 2006
The Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by JOHN WILLIAMS
Tamara Smirnova, violin. Martha Babcock, cello
“John Williams Spectacular”
Concert Review by Kevin Der (a.k.a. ‘Diskobolus’)
One of the first concert series of the Boston Pops season at Symphony Hall has traditionally been film music conducted by John Williams. He has maintained this annual event since stepping down as conductor of the Boston Pops in 1993, with the exception of last year, when he was too busy composing. This concert’s program draws upon Williams’ most well known works in addition to his recent scores. It also incorporates film music from other legendary composers, creating a fine collection of rousing and passionate repertoire.
The concert opened with A Hymn to New England, which Williams wrote for the opening of the Omni Theater at the Museum of Science two decades ago. It is pure Americana, with brass fanfares and triumphant string melodies that slightly recall Copland. Three pieces from Star Wars followed: “Main Title and Rebel Blockade Runner” was brilliantly performed, with its driving rhythms and enormous sound conjuring nostalgic images from the opening titles of Episode IV. “Anakin’s Theme” from Episode I and “Imperial March” from Episode V came next, a wise choice suggestive of how the innocent, lyrical tune for Anakin changes into Darth Vader’s theme through motivic borrowings and harmonic imitation, representing the character’s transformation from boy to Sith Lord.
Williams continued through another of his grand fantasy epics with three pieces from his recent Harry Potter scores. The first film’s “Hedwig’s Theme” employs the quick, bell-like celeste to suggest a light, magically charged flight. To the joy of all, Williams chose to perform the full concert version of this piece, an extended arrangement that passes the celeste themes to the strings and horns, eventually erupting into a grand, full-bodied orchestral climax that the musicians captured flawlessly. “Aunt Marge’s Waltz,” from the third film, is a comical, chaotic piece underscoring the scene in which Harry casts a spell on Marge causing her to swell like a balloon, soon lost to the sky. The dance combines with heavy, low brass allusions to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” employing arpeggios and descending chromatic scales over shots of a cuckoo clock, resulting in a humorous, inflated feel.
Finally, “Harry’s Wondrous World” incorporates a number of musical ideas from the first film, including both heroic and introspective themes for Harry, a Quidditch fanfare, and others. Unusual French to tonic harmonic progressions lend an exotic, sorcerous mood. It is perhaps the most majestic and satisfying piece from the last decade of Williams’ scores.
Selections from two Spielberg films about children also appeared. “Jim’s New Life,” from Empire of the Sun, relays the youthful vigor of a boy imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp following the evacuation of Shanghai’s International Settlement during the Second World War. The appearance of this rare concert piece was a delight. “Flight to Neverland” from the less serious Hook is one of Williams’ most rousing flying themes, often performed by the Pops. Few of his compositions can send the listener soaring more than this sweeping, turning string melody.
Williams recently composed the score to Memoirs of a Geisha, about the rarefied world of Japanese culture in which geisha are trained to entertain men with their beauty and artistic skills. Sayuri, a young geisha in training, is musically represented by a single cello, whose dark, rich timbre captures her deep longing for true love in “Sayuri’s Theme.” The Chairman, the man she yearns for, appears through sweet, tender violin solos in “The Chairman’s Waltz” that evoke his kindness towards her. Martha Babcock, cello, and Concertmistress Tamara Smirnova handled these solo passages with impressive grace. Finally, “Brush on Silk,” a brave concert choice, is largely athematic with plucked cello and wooden percussive effects that yield a seemingly authentic Japanese sound. With his usual calm disposition, Williams allowed his soloists expressive freedom while occasionally establishing a deliberate tempo when necessary. Interestingly, his conducting becomes most physical and involved during slow, tender passages, seemingly to coax maximum expression from his players.
In the first of several pieces by other composers, Smirnova performed the main theme from Ennio Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso, a stunningly poignant score. This arrangement also integrated the love theme in the film that was actually composed by Morricone’s son Andrea. The beauty of this sweeping melody is simply beyond words.
Reprising a tribute from last August at Tanglewood, Williams also showcased well-known scores from three film music giants who passed away in 2004. David Raksin drew inspiration for the tragic violin theme of the title character in Laura upon learning that his spouse was leaving him. Agonized ninth chords demanding resolution and Smirnova’s mastery recreated the beautiful woman Laura who captured hearts even after her death simply through her image. The rich melodies of Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trektheme and Elmer Bernstein’s Western The Magnificent Seven also filled Symphony Hall gloriously.
The single miscalculation of the evening was an arrangement called “Monsters, Beauties, and Heroes,” with short passages from Jaws and Steiner’s King Kong; Casablanca and An Affair to Remember;and Superman and Korngold’s Robin Hood. Marvelous concert selections on their own, they formed a piece overfilled with competing musical ideas. Accompanied by a film montage of poorly chosen characters with an absurd spiraling camera, the piece was lacking. A similar montage of athletes for Williams’ marvelous The Olympic Spirit again proved unnecessary and distracting. The masterpieces performed at these concerts capture the images within, relieving the listener from needing the film at all.
Williams reciprocated tremendous ovations from the audience with two familiar, crowd-pleasing encores — the Raiders march from Indiana Jones and the Flying theme from E.T. Though wonderful to hear, they are old-hat encores that Williams uses virtually every concert. Less-familiar favorites like themes from “Home Alone” or even “Parade of the Slave Children” from the second Indiana Jones film would be wonderful encores. Nevertheless, any concert conducted by Williams is an experience to cherish, and this program brought out the best in the Maestro and the Pops.
The Meeting John Williams Report
The best way to meet Williams is to wait after the concert at the stage door at the end of the hall. While people sometimes wait outside for him to arrive, this is not a good way to meet him since he has little time before the start of the concert, and his driver has said he prefers not to meet people beforehand.
FRIDAY – Roughly two dozen people waited for Williams to emerge afterwards, and after some time we were told he would quickly greet us on his way out. We proceeded outside to the external stage door next to his waiting Lincoln Towncar, BSO-1. We watched as ushers left, likely returning to Berklee or NEC. Tamara Smirnova and Martha Babcock, soloists, left while we waited and people congratulated them on an excellent performance. After roughly forty-five minutes, Williams came out to great applause. He took photos with people and graciously signed autographs, even though it was dark and rainy.
SATURDAY – With much experience waiting for Williams, I decided just to linger around in the hope he would show up. My goal was to obtain a more aesthetic photograph that wasn’t taken outside, and I had also brought Azkaban to be signed just in case. After about fifteen minutes, only a small group of people remained, half of which were led backstage by a man who was presumably family. Then the man guarding the door actually opened it and started to usher people inside. I had never seen this after a half dozen times of waiting for Williams there. Soon I found myself backstage and going upstairs.
About a dozen of us stood there, waiting outside Williams’ personal dressing room. I was stunned at this tremendous fortune. one by one, he signed autographs and took photos, chatting with each person. As a few people know, trying to speak intelligibly to one’s personal lifelong idol is difficult at best. Stammering through, I told him that A.I. was my favorite of his scores, and in particular I mentioned the Reunion theme as his most beautiful melody. He then signed my Azkaban CD cover and graciously posed for photos with me in front of his piano, which was covered with sheet music. Still stunned at the surrealism of all this, I took more photos of his piano, the nameplate on the door of the dressing room, and the conductor’s stand from backstage.
The one thing all people realize when they meet Williams is his incredible humbleness. However inspiring his music is, his kindness towards strangers who love his music is simply overwhelming.
“A Postcard to Boston” from A Hymn to New England
Three Pieces from Star Wars
“Main Title and Blockade Runner”
“The Imperial March”
Three Pieces from Harry Potter
“Aunt Marge’s Waltz”
“Harry’s Wondrous World”
“Jims New Life” from Empire of the Sun
Three Pieces from Memoirs of a Geisha
“The Chairman’s Waltz”
“Brush on Silk”
“Flight to Neverland” from Hook
“Monsters, Beauties, and Heroes”
(King Kong, Jaws, Casablanca, An Affair to Remember, Robin Hood, Superman)
Tribute to Goldsmith, Raskin, and Bernstein
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The Magnificent Seven
“The Olympic Spirit”
“The Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark
“Flying Theme” from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Concert Review by ‘JMan’(Tuesday, May 16)
Hymn to New England
Perhaps one of the best pieces performed last night. The trumpet fanfares couldnt have been more powerful and the entire orchestra played this Americana piece extremely well. The video clip was all about Boston and showed footage of Red Sox/sports teams, downtown Boston, Historical aspects, etc. I actually had tears in my eyes, it was so beautiful.
Three Pieces from Star Wars
The first piece was the regular Main Title, I didnt notice a Rebel Blockade in there because it was a usual 5 minutes long and not shorter. What an awesome way to start your concert after Hymn to New England. Anakin’s Theme was extremely beautiful, although I saw this a lot during the entire performance, Williams wanted his tempos a little faster and the orchestra seemed to be a little behind, but stayed together nicely and eventually matched up with his conducting. Anakin’s Theme was exactly what is heard on the Phantom Menace album. Very Very nice. Imperial March again brought the whole Boston pops Nostalgia back to Symphony Hall. It was extremely powerful, and its funny when you hear things like this live, rather than listening to it on CD. That is, you hear different sections of the orchestra with a significant melodic line.
Three Pieces from Harry Potter
Hedwig’s Theme, so beautiful. Absolutely magical, and the celeste was wonderful. Aunt Marge’s Waltz, was actually my favorite of the three. Williams described it as a funny, sort of pompous tune which accompanies Harry’s spell on Aunt Marge. Its funny because Williams said the word Aunt, as Ant. Just never thuoght Id hear him say it that way! And I thought that he would definatley be conducting the waltz in three, but did it in one. The tempo that way was really fast, and the musicians seemed to be rushing it just a bit. But I dont think anyone noticed. Harry’s Wondrous World was absolutely exquisite. It is always a great way to finish a suite from Harry Potter and the orchestra was just wonderful. My favorite section of course is the Quidditch theme which goes into the friendship theme at the end. After this was the first intermission, which I didnt think there needed to be two, but hey maybe Williams needed to use the bathroom….
Jim’s New Life from Empire of the Sun
This piece sounded great. Why wouldn’t it? The Pops has played it before, and it sounded great then too. It was a great way to start off the concert again and ease into….
Suite from Memoirs of a Geisha
Each piece was slightly altered from the album, and made it very interesting to hear. Sayuri’s Theme was brilliantly played by Martha Babcock and the Orchestra. I was sort of expecting to hear that Geisha Dance that appears in the end credits and Becoming a Geisha for some momentus effect, but it stayed very eloquent and simple and did really nice. Babcock seemed to be a little high in pitch but fixed it right away. The Chairmen’s Waltz was played very smoothly. It was a little fast for my taste, but it contrasted from the first piece and I think thats possibly what Williams wanted. It was a mixture of the actual track on the CD and the other track where it uses French Horn to play the melody. Very very nice! Brush on Silk was a very fun piece to do. Im not sure if the tempo locked in right away but they did a great job playing it. The flute solos were very nice, I think I prefer more of the japanese flute on the album. Boston Pops Flutist sounded a bit to classically trained, but still was fantastic.
Flight to Neverland, from Hook
Again, a great way to finish the 2nd half. This and the Empire of the Sun piece sounded just as they do on the Boston Pops Recordings. Quite nice, but one SMALL criticisim. Im not sure if these two pieces lined up well with Memoirs. It’s probably me. It just seemd a little disjointed to go from Memoirs of A Geisha to Hook. And, I really wanted to hear Avner’s Theme from Munich, in which the BSO website said it would have. Eh, whatever, it was still all very very awesome.
The last half was all tribute music to film composers, and most of what I have to say about it has been said already. Olympic Spirit was absoutley awesome. THe film with it was beautiful and showed a fine quality of Spirit in the olympic atheletes. WOW!!!! Just amazing what the human body can do, and Williams music illustrated that further.
Raiders march, and flying Theme! Was wonderful! Again Williams made the “Have to go to Bed” signal to the audience, but what a wonderful night!!! Will never forget it.
Concert Review by Michael Wood
After arriving on a rather long flight from South Florida, I was glad to finally see Williams come on stage Tuesday Night. Symphony Hall was packed, and everyone seemed to be JW’s biggest fan. The initial ovation was tremendous. For me, this was my first time seeing a professional symphony orchestra live, so I was in for a real treat.
A Postcard to Boston had that classic Williams flair and was a great opener. There were some noticeable sync issues between the music and the film, but I found the film to be rather distracting- I was there for some great music.
The Star Wars medley was pristine and well executed. Anakin’s Theme had so much emotion in the playing. It was during this group of pieces that I really began to notice Williams’s conducting technique. I could tell that he set a really high standard for the Pops. In the Imperial March, he was extracting the music from the strings, delivering energy and vitality to the well known classic. The brass were incredibly solid, leading to the glorious end, which was met with a large ovation from the audience.
I don’t know who the Celeste player was, but he deserves a gold metal for his solo throughout Hedwig’s theme. As a pianist, I was deeply impressed with his control and style over the piece. Aunt Marge’s Waltz had a comedic bounce to it, and I could just imagine the film scene with Marge floating around. Harry’s Wondrous World was by far the best out of all three- in my opinion, better than the soundtrack. Williams shook his fists in the air after he cut the orchestra off, obviously very happy with the piece.
Jim’s New Life, from Empire of the Sun struck me as very light, bouncy, and happy, but it was not one of those pieces that I will remember from this concert.
For Memoirs of a Geisha, I think the pops did the best they could with what they had. Obviously, this is a western style classical orchestra- not very much East Asian instrumentation or influence. However, I was impressed with Martha Babcock’s ability to recreate a very authentic sound true to the film, which is a testament to her world-class musical artistry.
The Flight to Neverland lilted and floated along, unlike any other piece on the program. I literally felt as through I was soaring through the clouds. The strings were able to shine through here, and I’m very glad that Williams pulled out this less-known work to present to us.
For his Monsters, Beauties and Heroes, Williams had a score that encompassed many classic films, with images from the films actually projected behind the orchestra. The syncing with the film was much better this time around, and had some profound impacts. The audience chuckled when lassie appeared on screen.
The Theme from Cinema Paradiso was perhaps the most luscious sound of the evening. This was not just a performance of the old film score. Rather, Williams worked his classic magic into it, leaving me with tears in my eyes.
In his second to last piece on the program, Williams presented a tribute to three composers who had all recently passed away. The star trek theme did not impress me very much at all, although it did get a little better as it went along. The Theme from Laura offered the woodwinds some good solo opportunities. Principal oboist Keisuke Wakao had a beautiful dialogue with the strings. one of my teachers was Mr. Wakao’s former teacher, so it was neat to get to hear someone live who I had heard so many stories about. Principal flautist Elizabeth Ostling also did an upstanding job.
The Olympic Spirit was a great end to a great program. The audience was roaring with applause for what seemed like 5 minuets straight. The encores were amazing, and after Williams finished E.T., everyone was bursting with excitement. It felt as though everyone would have stayed all night applauding- I know I would have.
After the concert, I rushed to the stage door where I met Scott Stransky. I hadn’t known him from JWFAN, but I asked him if he was on the site and he said yes, so we got to know each other. After about 30-45 minutes, Williams came out, looking pretty tired, to sign autographs and chat with the 12-15 people that had waited. I remember someone asking Williams how they should go about getting into the film score business. Williams admittedly said he wasn’t really sure. After the student said he attended NEC, Williams said he should continue his performance studies. I took two pictures of Scott, and Williams thanked us for coming and started to move back towards the stage door. I quickly asked him for just one last autograph, told him I had come all the way from Florida just to see him. He graciously signed my program, and Scott managed to snap a shot of me and him just before he went backstage.
This was a night that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I probably will never get to meet Williams again, but I’m so thankful that I did just this once.