Memoirs from Boston: John Williams' Film Night at Pops (May 31-June1, 2017)

John Williams bowing after leading Film Night at Symphony Hall (Photo by Michael Blanchard)

Review of the annual Boston Pops Orchestra "Film Night" concert conducted by Maestro John Williams

Attending a concert conducted by Maestro John Williams is both a privilege and a great emotion. The brilliant composer/conductor celebrated his 85th birthday this year, hence the music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra, Keith Lockhart (who took the post from John Williams in 1995), chose to devote a large part of the Pops’ 2017 season to the celebration of the composer of Star Wars and E.T. The Williams-themed season – dutifully titled “Celebrating John Williams” - started on April 7 with a special concert conducted by Lockhart dedicated entirely to Williams' music, featuring both well-known pieces and excerpts from lesser-known gems of his long and distinguished career, such as Goodbye Mr. Chips, Heidi and The Towering Inferno. The concert was also recorded and released a few weeks later on CD and digital by BSO Classics with the title Lights, Camera ... Music! Six Decades of John Williams. Lockhart also conducted live-to-picture concerts of both E.T. and the world premiere of Jaws to packed audiences in Symphony Hall, while also peppering several Williams pieces throughout all programs of this year’s Pops season.

The city of Boston, and specifically this orchestra, is closely tied to John Williams, who has a legendary aura within the walls of the beautiful Symphony Hall. This feeling was almost tactile on the two dates of the annual "Film Night at Pops", always one of the most awaited events of the season. This year the podium was shared by Williams and Keith Lockhart, with the latter conducting the first half of the concert, then leaving the baton to the former in the second half. We already had the honour and the pleasure to attend a concert conducted by John Williams in the past, but this was the writer’s first experience in the city of Boston. As perhaps many do not know, during the Pops season (which usually goes from April until July 4) the aisles of Symphony Hall are transformed into a sort of outdoor concert environment: the usual armchairs are replaced by chairs and coffee tables, where you can even order dinner with à la carte menu. As strange as it may look to the eyes of the typical symphony patron, this is actually part of the charm and the peculiarity of the Pops concerts, where the atmosphere is very joyful and jovial. Since its heydays, one of the missions of the Boston Pops has been to bring a heterogeneous and diverse audience to the classical environment by offering a repertoire in which the melodies of the great Broadway musicals, music for ballet, folk tunes, traditional American songs and also film music are at the core of the programs. All this was well understood by John Williams during his years (1980-1993) as music director of what is also known as "America's Orchestra", continuing the impressive legacy of his predecessor Arthur Fiedler, while also succeeding in giving the Pops’ traditional repertoire a new and refreshing spin and putting film music under a more prominent spotlight.

Boston Pops' Film Night at Symphony Hall (Photo by Maurizio Caschetto)

A completely sold-out Symphony Hall welcomed Keith Lockhart on the podium with a big applause, who immediately started the evening with one of the lesser-known Williams pieces: "Pops on the March", written in 1981 to the memory of conductor Arthur Fiedler. It’s a short but extraordinary composition, a rambunctious funny march with peaks of amusing bravado (such as the sly quote of "Stars and Stripes Forever", one of the flagships of the Pops), bold jazz-like chords, brilliant instrumentation and highly complex contrapuntal writing (Lockhart revealed a tasty anecdote: the rhythmic motto at the basis of the piece is actually a punctuation of Fiedler’s name: "Ar-thur Fied-ler! Ar -thur Fied-ler! "). The audience particularly liked this delightful concert-opener and responded with a thunderous applause. Lockhart then took the stage to welcome the audience and introduce his half of the program, which was devoted largely to lesser-known Williams pieces as featured in the CD mentioned before. The following piece was indeed the exciting "Main Titles" from The Towering Inferno (1974), one of the first examples of symphonic exuberance in the career of the composer. The Pops' phenomenal brass section literally shone with a glowing performance. The piece that followed could not be more different for contrast and atmosphere: "Stargazers" from E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial, a beautiful composition for harp and orchestra (performed masterfully by Principal Harp Jessica Zhou) that plunged the entire Symphony Hall in an atmosphere the dreamy, poignant lyricism and where we were able to admire the excellent skills of Lockhart as a conductor. The feverish "Devil's Dance" from The Witches of Eastwick (1987) was performed with particular bravura by the whole orchestra, enhancing perfectly the kaleidoscopic texture the piece. The “Theme from JFK” (1991) showed the noble yet sober patriotic side of the composer (kudos to the magnificent solo of Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs), while the scherzo-like piece from The Adventures of Tintin ("The Duel") brought us back to playful Prokofiev-like territory, thanks also to the performance in perfect sync with a well-executed montage (projected onto a large screen above the orchestra) dedicated to the swashbuckling Hollywood films. "Viktor's Tale" from The Terminal (2004) put again a soloist at the center (clarinetist Thomas Martin), who performed brilliantly the Eastern Europe-flavoured piece that accompany the (mis)adventures of the character played by Tom Hanks. The final part of the first half of the concert was devoted to a couple of standards of Williams’ repertoire: "Harry's Wondrous World" from the first chapter of the Harry Potter series (2001), a veritable symphonic tour de force of profound orchestral wisdom, impeccably played by Lockhart and the Pops; and finally the irresistible “March from Superman” (1978), performed in sync with a montage of film clips taken from all the great achievements of Williams' extraordinary career. An enthusiastic audience devoted a long applause to orchestra and conductor.

John Williams conducts Film Night at Symphony Hall (Photo by Michael Blanchard)

After the canonical 20-minute interval, the orchestra returned on stage and, after a few moments, John Williams made his entrance on the podium, greeted by the audience with a huge applause and a standing ovation. Smiling and happy, Williams briefly took the applause and immediately turned to the orchestra, starting with his arrangement of "Hooray for Hollywood", a beautiful bon-bon where some of the most popular tunes of the Hollywood musicals are blended together with a brilliant orchestration reminiscent of the arrangements of the great Conrad Salinger (the master orchestrator of MGM musicals of the 1940s and ‘50s). Afterwards it was time for one of the evening's peaks, the suite from Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (2016), which has been retitled "A Child's Tale". Eight minutes in which Williams virtually condensed the best moments of the score; it’s an irresistible example of orchestral virtuosity (outstanding performance by Elizabeth Ostling, Principal Flute of the Pops) and great melodic invention, vividly painting a rapturous storybook feeling. Here, the boundary between the film nature of the piece and the necessity of autonomous expressive capacity on the concert stage disappeared completely, delivering something unique to the audience. Williams took the stage to thank and welcome the audience and then presented the subsequent piece on the program: "Out to Sea / Shark Cage Fugue" from Jaws (1975). Williams recalled the experience of that first historic success with his inseparable partner Steven Spielberg and then led the orchestra in a beautiful performance of the piece. As in The BFG, Williams takes a typical classical form (in this case, the Prelude and Fugue) and transforms two pieces written originally as film cues into something of great value in purely musical sense. The Maestro on the podium seemed particularly lively and engaged with the orchestra. The following piece was another excursus into his one of his less popular but nonetheless thrilling pieces: "A New Beginning" from Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), a beautiful adagio for strings of ecstatic contemplation. Williams then addressed the audience again to introduce three pieces from The Force Awakens (2015), the seventh installment of the Star Wars saga. The composer recalled his bond with the movie series that gave him enormous popularity; Williams also informed the public he has nearly finished writing and recording the music for the new chapter, The Last Jedi (out in December), and confessed once again his infatuation for young star Daisy Ridley ("When I was asked if I wanted to write the music for the new movie, I said yes because I did not want anyone else to write music for Daisy!”, joked Williams). 

BPO JohnWilliams leads FilmNight at SymphonyHall MichaelBlanchard

The orchestra was then led with great verve by the composer, starting with the exuberant "Scherzo for X-Wings", followed by the stupendous “Rey’s Theme” and capped off with the vibrant "March of the Resistance" (the latter showed that his contrapuntal vein is still fresh and vivid as ever). To close out the program, Williams performed a long medley titled "A Tribute to Steven Spielberg & George Lucas". The main themes of Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and E.T. followed one after the other as an accompaniment to an effective montage of clips from the respective films. A real crowd-pleaser in which it’s almost impossible not to surrender to enthusiasm. An audience in total adoration paid tribute to Williams with a long thunderous applause and standing ovation. Williams returned to the stage to perform the first of three encores. “Princess Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars was performed in memory of Carrie Fisher, who died suddenly last December (Williams told the audience that his daughter and the actress were both the same age and were very friendly, so he was particularly affected by Fisher's premature death). The piece was the emotional peak of the evening, with Williams inclined to a performance full of rubato and richly expressive (horn and flute solos were beautifully performed by Richard Sebring and Elizabeth Ostling). Williams then delighted the audience with a stunning performance of the rousing "March from 1941”, the hypertrophic comedy directed by Steven Spielberg in 1979, definitely a piece that puts the orchestra most extroverted personality in the spotlight (Williams, as a modern John Philip Sousa, also invited the audience to clap in time during the piece). And finally, he could not miss to perform the piece that closes out all his concerts, i.e. the "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back. After the biggest applause one could receive, the curtain closed on a truly wonderful evening of music.  

John Williams bowing after leading Film Night at Symphony Hall (Photo by Michael Blanchard)

In occasion of these concerts, we accompanied in Boston our friend Simone Pedroni, who presented to John Williams the first copy of his CD, John Williams: Themes and Transcriptions for Piano (out July 7th on Varèse Sarabande). We have always been huge fans of the art of Simone Pedroni as a pianist and conductor and we share with him the love and enthusiasm for the music of John Williams. So it was really a very special honour and a unique emotion to be received with him by Maestro Williams after the concert. The kindness and warmth of the man is equal to the greatness of the artist: the Maestro greeted us with sincere kindness and courtesy. 

Pianist Simone Pedroni presents his new CD to John Williams (Photo by Maurizio_Caschetto)

Pianist Simone Pedroni and Maestro Williams in conversation (Photo by Elisa Petrarulo)

We also took the opportunity to present Williams the 2016 Award, which he won for the fourth time in the categories "Best Music for a Foreign Language Film" (this time for Spielberg's The BFG) and "Best Foreign Composer". As you can imagine, it was a moment of great emotion that crowned, more than a personal dream, all the efforts, dedication and commitment that the team of (Massimo Privitera, Pietro Rustichelli, Alessio Coatto Giuliano Tomassacci, Roberto Pugliese) has given over fifteen years of activity. In the composer's music we always found inspiration for what we do and it has always been a terrific glue of friendship. As Maestro John Williams always taught us, we go forward with joy and humility. So, let us say with genuine enthusiasm: Grazie mille, Maestro!

John Williams receives the 2016 Award for the music of "The BFG"

A heartfelt thank you to Simone Pedroni, Elisa Petrarulo and Emilio Audissino for the friendship and the sharing of experience; Doreen Reis, Sam Brewer and Taryn Lott (Boston Symphony Orchestra), for their cooperation and support; Special thanks also to Keith Lockhart and Jamie Richardson. And the most heartfelt thank you to Maestro John Williams, for his unending courtesy and kindness.

Offical pictures from the concert are by Michael Blanchard. All rights reserved. Used with permission. All the other pictures by Maurizio Csschetto and Elisa Petrarulo.