Concert Review: Tanglewood Throws A Birthday Bash — John Williams Turns 80

Composer John Williams has often stated that Tanglewood has been among his favorite places to visit—and the feeling is mutual.

By Ron Barnell

Film Director Steven Spielberg at Tanglewood: Paying homage to friend and collaborator John Williams. Photo: Ron Barnell.

This past weekend, film music icon John Williams was honored at a special gala Tanglewood concert event on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The Boston Pops, of which Williams was music director of for over 13 years, were joined by a gathering of notable stars from the world of classical and pop music.

What better way to open this special birthday celebration than with Williams’s own composition,”Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” as performed by the Boston Pops orchestra under its current music director, Keith Lockhart. The addition of the brass players of the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets—its members arrayed at stage right and left—was a wonderful touch. They greeted the fanfare motives with stunning antiphonal responses.

The “Olympic Fanfare” composition was just the tip of the iceberg in a program that lasted over two hours and sampled the voluminous musical output (for both the screen and concert stage) of composer Williams, who is now laureate conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. In between the music numbers, there were video tributes from both President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, along with a salute from film director George Lucas.

Two other special tributes, also shown on the large screens in the Tanglewood Music Shed, contributed plenty of humor. In one, executive director Deborah Borda and current music director Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra engaged in a tongue-in-cheek question and answer session about Williams’s history with the L.A. orchestra. “How many times has John Williams conducted at the Hollywood Bowl?” “An astronomical number!” (Williams lives and works in L.A.) In another video segment, Brian Williams, host of the NBC Nightly News, (cue up the Williams theme music) presented a newscast parody of the Tanglewood birthday celebration.

The spotlight, of course was on Williams’s music, but two selections featured other composers. Jessye Norman’s marvelous voice exuded joy when she sang Jerome Kern’s “This Song Is You,” and special guest James Taylor sang his tune “You’ve Got A Friend” directly to Williams, who sat in the audience for the duration of the program.

Young BSO guest conductor Shi-Yeon-Sung took over the conductor’s helm for selected movements from three concert pieces by Williams. Keisuke Wakao, Pops principal oboe, played the Concerto for Oboe, James Sommerville, BSO principal horn, was skillfully expressive in his performance of the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, and Mike Roylance, BSO principal tuba, played his somewhat unwieldy instrument with surprising fluidity and grace in the Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra.

A big surprise for the Tanglewood audience came when film director Steven Spielberg appeared on stage to deliver a moving tribute to the composer of the music for many of his films. Speaking of the decades of friendship and collaboration between the two, Spielberg was effusive in his praise of Williams’s music, from the Indiana Jones trilogy to ET, Jaws, and every other project. Spielberg says that when he visits foreign countries, people come up to him who are unable to speak English but greet him by singing a Williams theme from one of his films.

Even the hometown ball team got in on the festivities when the Pops played Williams’s “Fanfare for Fenway,” which accompanied a film that offered a brief history of the Red Sox, including tributes from players such as David Ortiz.

Williams’s “Air and Simple Gifts” was performed at Obama’s inauguration, and for this performance, cellist Yo-Yo Ma was joined by clarinetist Anthony McGill, violinist Gil Shaham, and pianist Gabriela Montero. The piece is based on the same Shaker hymn theme that inspired Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Both Ma and Shaham were later featured in separate film score excerpts. Conductor Leonard Slatkin took over the podium to both lead these film score excerpts and close out the remainder of the program. Yo-Yo Ma played the oriental theme from Memoirs of a Geisha and Shaham played the theme from Schindler’s List with a touching poignancy. Earlier in the program, Slatkin had led the Pops in excerpts from the 1982 Spielberg film ET.

John Williams, overcome with emotion at the close of Tanglewood’s celebration of his 80th Birthday. L-R (James Sommerville, Leonard Slatkin, Jessye Norman, John Williams, Keith Lockhart, Mike Roylance ) Photo: Ron Barnell.

To help bring to a close this celebratory program, Slatkin and the Boston Pops played the theme from Star Wars to a fast-paced montage of clips from George Lucas films, much to the loud delight of the large gathered audience, both in the Music Shed and out on the Tanglewood lawn.

One last piece of Williams’s music remained, and what would be more appropriate to end this wonderful night than his own “Happy Birthday Variations”? For this performance, the Boston Pops was joined by members of the brass and woodwind players from the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

Williams has often stated that Tanglewood has been among his favorite places to visit—and the feeling is mutual. This was never more evident than at this 80th birthday concert, which emanated a palpable sense of the love shared among Williams, his friends, the performers on stage, and an appreciative audience who knew they were witness to a very special occasion—honoring an artist who is also a national treasure.

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