Concert Review: John Williams’s Violin Concerto no. 2 at Tanglewood

By Jonathan Blumhofer

On first impression, John Williams’s second violin concerto didn’t strike me as an instant classic, but there’s more than a little here to warrant repeated listening.

John Williams, Anne-Sophie Mutter perform his Violin Concerto No. 2 with BSO, Dress Rehearsal. Photo: Hilary Scott

One of the pleasantly surprising partnerships of the last few years has been Anne-Sophie Mutter’s collaborations with John Williams. While the German violinist and the American composer are each musical royalty in their own rights, their natural rapport is impossible to miss.

And it seems only right that, after several years of concertizing and recording together, Williams should write a violin concerto for Mutter. This he did over the last year and the piece — Williams’s second for the instrument — had its premiere on Saturday night at Tanglewood, with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

There’s always been a stylistic divide between Williams’s film music and his concert work, the former tune-driven and easily accessible; the latter decidedly more abstract. Such is the situation, for the most part, with the new Concerto.

The first of its four movements is rhapsodic and rather discursive. Echoes of some of Williams’s Los Angeles-based contemporaries and forebears subtly pop up: for instance, there seem to be sly allusions, in Williams’s angular motivic writing, to Arnold Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto; other moments echo André Previn’s 2002 Violin Concerto (also, coincidentally, written for Mutter). Most musically significant, though, is the movement’s recurring dialogue between solo violin and harp.

An ethereal, atmospheric second movement follows. Williams suggests that there’s something Debussy-like to the proceedings; I’d liken it more to a generally Impressionistic haze, full of spinning and lyrical figures. The movement’s central part is radiantly songful, lush, and introspective.

A taut, menacing, jazzy third movement ensues, highlighted by some striking instrumental combinations (like a duet between solo violin and trombone and a bracing trio for soloist, timpani, and harp).

Rounding things out is a reflective finale, again prominently featuring harp and solo violin. Its flawlessly paced coda evokes Shostakovich (or, perhaps more arcanely, the end of Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso no. 5).

Regardless, the piece is tailor-made for Mutter: her rich tone, penchant for portamento phrasings, flexible vibrato, and affinity for jazz all have ample opportunity to shine. So, too, her astounding technical chops, which get a robust workout, especially in the Concerto’s several cadenzas.

In Saturday’s premiere, Mutter’s playing was breathtakingly assured, full of warmth and color. Williams led the BSO with an easy hand and the ensemble responded with playing of confidence and energy. The same qualities applied to the threesome’s encore of “Across the Stars” (from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones).

What to make, more broadly, of the Concerto?

Occasionally, Williams’s writing is diffuse — especially in the opening movement, whose gestures and thematic materials, on one hearing at least, seem to meander.

The second and fourth movements, though, are touching, the finale’s coda haunting. The orchestration is iridescent and there are discreet references throughout — in scoring and gesture — to Williams’s film writing; these are welcome, as are the music’s hints (and more) of jazz.

So, even if the score’s first impression isn’t that of an instant classic, there’s more than a little here to warrant repeated listening. Happily, that opportunity is in the offing: Mutter, Williams, and the Concerto open the BSO’s fall season in September at Symphony Hall.

The remainder of the night’s fare — from Jessie Montgomery, Aaron Copland, and Igor Stravinsky — was, while not literally cinematic, broadly pictorial.

BSO music director Andris Nelsons led a beautifully shaped account of the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. If the “Infernal Dance” wanted for a bit of a rhythmic edge, the dulcet moments — particularly the “Round Dance” and “Berceuse” — were marked by exquisite orchestral solos and compelling dynamic shadings.

Copland’s plangent Quiet City was likewise well directed, with principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs and English hornist Robert Sheena seamlessly exchanging their solos.

Leading off was Montgomery’s string-orchestra Starburst. Written in 2012, it’s a short, genial curtain-raiser: stylistically inoffensive but also, with its Copland-esque riffs and snaking scalar patterns, a bit faceless. Montgomery is one of the day’s most in-demand composers, and it would have been nice to hear something more substantive of hers. However, for new music on this night, that prerogative belonged to the Williams.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


  1. Randy on November 25, 2021 at 9:08 pm

    I appreciate Jonathan Blumhofer bending over backwards to give John Williams’s new concerto the benefit of the doubt. I cannot be so charitable. From the first bars, it was clear that here was a work that was going nowhere slowly. I feel that the critical community is simply honoring Williams long successful career in film when giving his more classical works a pass. I’ve heard much of the composer’s work in this genre, but have virtually never heard a piece I’d like to hear a second time. There may also be a feeling that if a composer is championed by an Anne-Sophie Mutter or a Gustavo Dudamel, there must be something there. However, I believe these collaborations are set up by their common label DG, and that these pairings may be much more about commerce than art.

    • Jonathan Blumhofer on November 26, 2021 at 11:49 am

      Hi Randy,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Believe me, I’m no blind admirer of Williams: I agree that much (if not most) of his concert music doesn’t warrant repeated listening; its crafty, yes, but rarely inspired and doesn’t match the quality or immediacy of his best film music (I’d lay a similar criticism at the feet of much of Andre Previn’s output, too). And, perhaps, some critics are wowed by Williams’ fame and give him undue credit accordingly. I don’t think I’m one of those but…who knows? At any rate, there was no “bending over backwards” here: I found striking and touching aspects to this violin concerto that made me want to give the piece another hearing.

      As to your second observation, I think we’re largely in agreement. Surely DG is cashing in on Williams’ celebrity to sell records (how else does one explain the “John Williams in Vienna” and the forthcoming “John Williams in Berlin” releases which basically duplicate repertoire, soloist, and conductor, while just swapping out one city’s philharmonic orchestra with the other?). And maybe, in commissioning, playing, and promoting these events and albums, Mutter, Dudamel, the LA Phil and BSO, et al. sometimes put commerce before art. That’s a legitimate question to ask. I can’t answer it definitively but imagine it figures into the equation more here than in, say, DG’s ongoing recordings of the Florence Price symphonies.

      That said, having spoken with Mutter about the Williams, I was impressed with how seriously she seemed to take the piece as both music and art. She’s got a long history of commissioning composers across the stylistic spectrum, so is a little hard to pin down on that count. But, for whatever it’s worth, our chat suggested to me that she considered and approached this concerto in the same way she did earlier commissions from Sofia Gubaidulina, Wolfgang Rihm, Krzysztof Penderecki and others.

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