John Williams returns to Tanglewood, while Jussen brothers and BSO enchant in Mendelssohn and Berlioz

United StatesUnited States 2023 Tanglewood [5] – John Williams Film Night: Elita Kang (violin), BU Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Vocal Program Chorus (director: Penelope Bitzas / conductor: Katie Woolf), Boston Pops Orchestra / David Newman and John Williams (conductors). Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, 5.8.2023. (CSa)

John Williams conducts Elita Kang playing the Theme from Schindler’s List at Film Night © Hilary Scott

Richard Whiting – Hooray for Hollywood! (arr. John Williams)
John Williams The Cowboys Overture
Bernard Herrmann – Scène d’amour from Vertigo
John Williams – Suite from Far and Away; Theme from Jurassic Park; Love Theme and March from Superman; The Adventures of Mutt from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Call of the Champions; Dry Your Tears, Afrika from Amistad; Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; Theme from Schindler’s List; Selections from Star Wars: The Asteroid Field, Anakin’s Theme, Throne Room and Finale

The movies may be dying and the cinema in its death throes, but a blockbuster audience in excess of 18,000 filled the Koussevitsky Shed and thronged the Tanglewood lawns on a warm summer evening to hear the Boston Pops Orchestra show off its chops in the Festival’s annual ‘John Williams Film Night’.  Williams, the event’s eponymous hero, is a living legend. A former Director of the Pops and a sprightly 91-year-old composer and conductor, Williams has received many accolades, most recently in 2022, when he received an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire from the late Queen Elizabeth. Sir John has been responsible for some of the most popular and acclaimed film scores in movie history. The evening’s wildly popular programme was a veritable trip down movie Memory Lane. The first half of the concert, which was conducted by film music creator David Newman, opened with Williams’s pacey arrangement of Richard Whiting’s ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ from Busby Berkeley’s 1937 classic film Hollywood Hotel. Then came The Cowboys Overture which Williams wrote for the 1972 film featuring John Wayne as an aging Montana cattle rancher driving his steers to South Dakota. In an homage to composer Bernard Herrmann, we heard a sumptuous Scène d’amour, the theme from Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo. Next up: Williams’s suite from Ron Howard’s 1992 Irish family drama Far and Away followed by Theme from Jurassic Park. As the last, lush chords died away, the orchestra segued into the Love Theme and March from Superman, an apt choice to accompany a photographic biography of Williams’s long life playing out above the audience on overhead screens.

John Williams conducts Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace at Film Night © Hilary Scott

After the interval, the maestro took David Newman’s place to conduct the second half of the programme: musical extracts from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, followed by Call of the Champions, written for the 2002 Winter Games, rousingly supported by the Boston University Tanglewood Institute’s Young Artists Chorus and illustrated by a selection of Olympic film highlights. In a dramatic change of mood, the orchestra played Dry Your Tears, Afrika from Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and, joined by violinist Elita Kang, gave a tender account of the Theme from Schindler’s List. The extraordinary inventory of Williams’s movie compositions would have been incomplete without some reference to Star Wars. The audience thrilled to a selection which included The Asteroid Field, Anakin’s Theme, Throne Room and Finale. The evening closed with a hat trick of encores including Williams’s  recent Helena’s Theme from Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny as well as the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. The latter, perhaps, a passing musical reference to Darth Vader and his dark forces and a gently humorous tribute by a Knight of a once mighty empire to another.

2023 Tanglewood [6] – Mendelsohn, Berlioz: Lucas Jussen (piano 1) and Arthur Jussen (piano 2), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (conductor). Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, 6.8.2023.

Lucas and Arthur Jussen

Mendelssohn – Concerto in E for Two Pianos and Orchestra
BerliozSymphonie fantastique: Episode from the Life of an Artist, Op.14

There was also a certain cinematic quality to Sunday afternoon’s concert, and a sprinkling of stardust. Dutch born brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen, 29 and 26 respectively, are a highly accomplished and internationally lauded piano duo graced with Hollywood good looks. Under the expressive baton of Kazuki Yamada, they joined the BSO in a virtuosic performance of Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E for Two Pianos. Mendelssohn composed this work in October 1823 when he was a mere 14-year-old, and which he intended to play with his pianist sister Fanny.  Although melodically and textually derivative of Mozart and Beethoven, the work is delicately ornamented and its structure astonishingly sophisticated considering Felix’s age at the time he wrote it. The two concert Steinways were positioned on opposite sides of the podium, which enabled the brothers to face one another and to carry on a well-balanced musical conversation, which they achieved with antiphonal grace. The vivacious opening Allegro was taken at a lively pace, the pianos superbly coordinated, while the stately Adagio was artfully decorated with precisely executed keyboard scales and trills. The work’s final Allegro, dispatched in a blaze of knife-edge virtuosity, unsurprisingly aroused whoops and hollers of delight from the duo’s dedicated fanbase.

The second half of the concert comprised one work: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Infatuated with his muse, Harriet Smithson, in 1829 Berlioz wrote to a friend: ‘For some time, I have had a descriptive symphony in my brain. When I have released it, I mean to stagger the musical world.’ The work, which Berlioz entitled ‘Episode from the life of an artist’, is divided into five sections, which include descriptive headings such as Reveries and Passions, March to the Scaffold, and Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. Written by Berlioz under the influence of opium, Leonard Bernstein described the symphony as ‘the first musical expedition into psychedelia’. The BSO’s performance of this dreamlike work was remarkable in every respect. Yamada used his baton with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel to lay bare the intricacies of the orchestration underlying the surface of the music. The result was an exceptional clarity of texture. Eliciting a rich sonority from the strings, a piercing precision from woodwind, and clarion power from brass and horns, this young conductor at once controlled and liberated the players. The dynamic range of the orchestra was carefully controlled from almost imperceptible pianissimos to great swells of sound, particularly in the ominous March. The macabre, infernal Witches’ Sabbath – replete with devilish skirls of the piccolo, and funereal bells – made for a compellingly dramatic finale and brought the concert to a thrilling conclusion. One was left wondering what Hollywood’s musical legacy would have been like had Berlioz written for the movies.

Chris Sallon

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