John Williams 80th Birthday Celebration
Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart, Leonard Slatkin, and Shi-Yeon Sung
Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck
The folks at Tanglewood really know how to celebrate. Saturday night’s concert marking John Williams’s 80th birthday was a marvelous occasion, from top notch performances and special guests, both in person and via video, to the perfect weather that enticed a near-capacity audience to fill the Shed and Lawn.
With an honoree as accomplished and prolific as John Williams, of course, the challenge is to select music that represents the arc of his long and successful career as a composer. Saturday’s concert included some of his most iconic film scores and a number of other commissions and concert works, all beautifully performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra. Williams was the conductor of the Pops for fourteen seasons and is artist-in-residence at Tanglewood, where his Film Nights are among the most popular concerts every summer.
Saturday’s concert began splendidly with the Olympic Fanfare and Theme, the musicians of the U.S Army Herald Trumpets ranged at the front of the stage, flanking Keith Lockhart on the podium conducting the Boston Pops. The Army contingent, in full dress uniforms with embellished banners hanging from their instruments, lent a ceremonial and rather magnificent importance to the familiar and very timely composition.
Selections from a number of Williams’s film scores as well as concert pieces were interspersed by birthday wishes from a number of guests throughout the evening. Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, was the first of the well-wishers to have a video message for John Williams; others included conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and many of the Boston Red Sox players, accompanying the performance of “Fanfare for Fenway.” There were several wonderful surprises revealed one after another as the concert unfolded.
Jessye Norman, elegant in a turban and sweeping evening gown in chic black and white, sang a selection by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and then followed her personal birthday message to John Williams by introducing the next section of the concert. Shi-Yeon Sung led the Boston Pops Orchestra in three concert pieces: Concerto for Oboe, 3rd Movement: Commedia, with Keisuke Wakao on oboe, was first, featuring the playful notes of the oboe over the richness of the string section. The second selection was Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, 5th Movement; Nocturne, with James Sommerville on horn, a slower, rather majestic work with a noble and uplifting quality. The third selection was Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra, 3rd Movement, featuring Mike Roylance on tuba, a lively, bold selection with wonderful contributions from the entire brass section.
In a big surprise moment for the enthusiastic audience, Steven Spielberg was next to take the stage and share birthday wishes. “John Williams has made the most indelible contribution,” Spielberg said, “a musical language that can be understood in every country in the world.” Spielberg credited Williams with being the single most significant contributor to his success as a filmmaker, and called Williams a national treasure. Spielberg’s remarks were followed by Leonard Slatkin conducting the Pops in Adventures on Earth from “E.T. The Extra-terrestrial.” It is always thrilling to hear this soaring, exciting score performed live.
Following the intermission and “Fanfare for Fenway,” Keith Lockhart took a moment to describe John Williams as “a tough act to follow,” and crediting Williams with being a valued mentor, advisor, and friend. He then led the Pops in playing Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, an iconic piece of music that perfectly represents the strong narrative quality of Williams’s compositions, conjuring up all the magic of the Harry Potter films.
The next special guest who appeared on video was President Barack Obama, who said, “on behalf of all Americans, I thank you for sharing your incredible talent.” The president’s message was followed by the quartet Williams created for the Inauguration: “Air and Simple Gifts.” It was performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero, and clarinetist Anthony McGill, all of whom played the selection at the inauguration, joined Saturday evening by violinist Gil Shaham. It was like a gentle jazz improve on the beloved Shaker tune, imparting a very modern feeling by enhancing the harmonies and manipulating the tempos, while retaining the plaintive beauty of the old-time song.
Yo-Yo Ma stayed on stage with the Pops Orchestra to play a selection form the film Memoirs of a Geisha, with Leonard Slatkin conducting. The beauty of Ma’s playing was complemented by Williams’s interesting use of the harp and creative percussion. Then Gil Shaham returned to play the violin solo on Theme from Schindler’s List, a haunting and beautiful composition that features a particularly lovely passage between the solo violin and the harp.
George Lucas appeared next, via video, calling John Williams an icon in the world of music; his remarks served to introduce a wonderful, lengthy performance of the Main Title from Star Wars, accompanied by film clips from all the Star Wars films. This might be the ultimate adventure score, and always thrilling to hear played by a large orchestra.
The second very special guest who appeared unannounced was James Taylor, who thanked John Williams for introducing him to the BSO and to the love of his life, his wife, Caroline, before singing “You’ve Got a Friend,” with BSO cellist Owen Young. JT sounded wonderful and the cello was a perfect fit with the guitar.
Video messages from Bill Clinton and Seiji Ozawa were shown, and then came the grand finale, a festive performance of “Happy Birthday Variations” with the Pops augmented by brass and woodwind players from the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. The concert came to a rousing finish as everyone in the Shed rose to sing “Happy Birthday” to John Williams, who took a bow with all the special guests and performers. It was quite an evening, and a fitting tribute to one of the most beloved of American composers, as the 75th Anniversary celebration of Tanglewood begins to wind down for the summer.
The Boston Pops will perform next on Friday, August 24 at 8:30 p.m. in the Shed at Tanglewood. The program is titled Gershwin and Friends, and features guest performers Maureen McGovern and Brian Stokes Mitchell, as well as pianist Ilya Yakushev. Along with selections from the Great American Songbook, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue will be performed.
For more information, visit tanglewood.org.