‘John Williams’ Many Facets’ (1998)

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, John Williams, conductor, at Tanglewood, Saturday evening

By Susan Larson, Globe Correspondent
The Boston Globe, page C10, July 27th, 1998
LENOX — A concert of entirely 20th-century music is not likely to win the general approval of the picnicking thousands on Tanglewood’s lawn, but Saturday’s concert by the BSO and Boston Pops conductor laureate John Williams took that risk. Williams, who has reintroduced us to the symphonic movie score (“Star Wars,” “Superman,” “Schindler’s List,” and, as of last week, “Saving Private Ryan”) is one of the few conductors with enough personal cachet to lure the unwary concertgoer into listening to modern music, and what’s more, liking it.
Granted, his program tapped the more conventional end of 20th-century music — no electronic noises, nothing by Babbitt. But it was all strong, accessible, beautiful music, and two of the compositions were by Williams. For a teaser, Williams and the Boston Symphony Orchestra trotted out Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal,” Op. 5. This amusing, gossipy piece is rhythmically slippery, and the orchestra found itself skidding on the sharper turns. If Williams slighted the overture in rehearsals to favor his own works, who’s to blame him?
In Williams’s violin concerto, written more than two decades ago, we get to see another side of the Hollywood composer. Movie music has to be simpler and less rhetorical than concert music, which is written to engage your ear in intensely nuanced conversation.
This first performance by the BSO, with the superb violinist Gil Shaham, rewarded the attentive ear at every turn, making this somber, personal, and rather introverted concerto live and breathe.
Shaham’s limpid cantilena in the solo introduction, his breathtaking sotto voce playing, and his stunning passage-work (never merely grandstanding, always sensitive to whatever material he was decorating) soared over orchestral textures that glowed witheerie phosphorescence. Shaham shared the poignant songs of the slow movement with Elizabeth Ostling’s flute, passing melody between them as harmonies cleared out to simple (never schmaltzy) triads. The motor rhythms of the final movement, with its haunted reminiscences of earlier material, had you hurtling forward while looking backward. Bravos and enthusiastic applause followed the stretto coda.
The world premiere of Williams’s symphonic song cycle “Seven for Luck,” on poems by Rita Dove, former poet laureate of the United States, brought the poet herself to the stage (carmine-gowned and looking like a diva) to read her texts. The radiant American soprano Cynthia Haymon sang Dove’s poems about woman’s life and love, which tell it like it is in a decidedly different tone than Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe” cycle. Haymon has a crystal chime of a voice and endless, high, floaty pianissimos. She inhabited Dove’s gorgeous poetry and Williams’s high-flying melodies, showing us a child’s wonder at the world, a girl’s sexual awakening as summer street lights “ping into miniature suns” (accompanied by Jacques Zoon’s sensual flute and cellist Martha Babcock’s portentous pizzicato “pings”).
Spontaneous and heartfelt applause followed every song, especially the Caribean-lilting, food-lusting “Chocolate”; the nervous-ironic confessions of “Expecting,” the real skinny on being pregnant; and the quietly menacing “Serenade,” introduced by Ann Hobson Pilot’s eloquent harp solo. The evening closed with Stravinsky’s 1919 “Firebird” suite, in which Williams found just the right tempos and character in a high-mettled performance that was sharp, clean, and invigorating.