Composer John Williams is celebrated with performances at the Kennedy Center
But Williams was also responsible for an important part of my early musical education. With “Looney Tunes” and “Fantasia”, it was Williams who taught me to understand music as a language in its own right. I’ve exhausted my tapes of the soundtracks to “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – those are the first classic albums I’ve ever owned. (Although I don’t realize it until now.)
Williams taught me that music could caption the action, lend subtext to silence, re-illuminate characters, and provide entire universes with a spectrum of unseen colors. He could summon sound as massive and monolithic as a descending spaceship or as fragile and fleeting as the searchlight beam. Listening to him, I knew roughly where the approaching shark was and exactly when Elliott’s bike tires left the ground. Williams made movies portable and playable in my own imagination (and freed me from having to sit still).
In honor of the prolific composer and conductor, on June 23, the National Symphony Orchestra will host a grand 90th anniversary party.
For ‘John Williams: A 90th Birthday Gala’, conductor Stéphane Denève will lead the ONS in an expansive celebration of Williams’ famous film score. Special guests cellist Yo-Yo Ma, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter will present selections from some of Williams’ most beloved scores, including “Close Encounters”, “ET”, “Harry Potter”, “Indiana Jones” and “Schindler’s List.” The program will also highlight Williams’ most recently acclaimed work, the score for Kobe Bryant and Glen Keane’s Oscar-winning 2017 short “Dear Basketball.”
A pair of concerts accompanying the gala celebration will focus on two of Williams’ best-known scores – representing a fraction of his 29 collaborations with Spielberg. (Their latest project, “The Fabelmans,” is due out in November). Steven Reineke will conduct the composer’s scores for “ET” and “Jurassic Park” on June 22 and 24, respectively. (The NSO will also perform Williams’ score for “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” with a screening of the film at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on July 29.)
Toast to classical music under the stars
Taken together, the birthday bash is three days of music that will hit every subconscious button that Williams has hardwired into our collective memories over the past five decades – a rich catalog of instantly identifiable melodies, moods and patterns that can conjure up whole worlds with the arc shot.
The party, however, conspicuously forgot to invite concert music from Williams – the province of his output that really opened my ears to his mastery of composition. (He also leaves out selections from “AI Artificial Intelligence,” a deep cut that represents some of his best work with Spielberg, but that’s another story.)
I understand. We’ve come to equate Williams with Hollywood so closely that it can be hard to imagine him freed from the confines of cinema.
But in Williams’s many concertos, chamber works, and solo pieces, his familiar compositional voice is fully present, though it is used for completely different purposes. His links with multiple classical traditions are more clearly inscribed: his Bergian penchant for obscurity and dissonance, his Copland-like ease in evoking natural grandeur, his heritage of the gestures of Debussy, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Korngold.
Here are some of my favorite works by Williams that have nothing to do with the movies – and have far more depth than you might expect from a composer we associate with the silver screen.
‘Concerto for flute and orchestra’ (1969)
In the 1960s, Williams was just beginning his career as a film composer, and by 1967 had over a dozen scores to his name (which, at the time, was called “Johnny”). He also scored (in the other direction) an Oscar nomination for his lavish music for “Valley of the Dolls,” which included arrangements of songs by André and Dory Previn and not a hint of his flair for drama. . The ‘Concerto for Flute and Orchestra’ came to what seems like a surge of confidence when Johnny became John (sometimes ‘John T.’) and his music began to take on a very particular shape. Icy strings yawn behind a searching flute in its opening bars, and a cinematic tension seems to pull it forward, into creepy corners, down long, uncertain corridors of dissonance, and through reassuringly familiar landscapes lit by the Williams’ awakened melodic courage. Much of what will appear on screen over the next decade can be heard in primordial form in this astonishing concerto – from the haunting high tension of its score for Robert Altman’s 1972 thriller ‘Images’ to the spectral strangeness from his Oscar-nominated score for Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece, “Encounters of the Third Kind.”
‘Tuba Concerto’ (1985)
Perhaps because Williams’ music is so consistently grounded in a rich visual experience, in the absence of a film, it can be tempting to layer your own narrative onto his compositions. This is especially the case with his concertos, in which the solos — more so than most composers — seem to have a serious case of lead character syndrome. Amid Williams’ 1985 “Tuba Concerto,” written for the 100th anniversary of the Boston Pops (the orchestra Williams led for 14 seasons), you’ll find yourself rooting for its roaring protagonist, so often forgotten in the back of brass. section. A classic rendition of the concerto by the WDR Symphony Orchestra showcases master tubist Hans Nickel’s chops, but also the uncanny lyricism and humanity that Williams is able to write into the instrument’s roaring, sometimes tremulous sounds. By 1985, the composer had already crafted instantly recognizable leitmotifs for Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, and Elliott Taylor (the one who kept ET), and his well-honed affinity for an unlikely hero is on full display here.
‘Concerto for cello and orchestra’ (1994)
In 1994, Williams and Yo-Yo Ma had played together several times, the composer accompanying the cellist here and there on the piano in interpretations of works by Haydn, Elgar and Dvorak. This concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and composed specifically for Ma, was premiered in 1994 during the opening of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall in Lenox, Mass. (Ma also gave a memorable rendition of the concerto at the Kennedy Center in 2017 as part of a JFK Centennial Celebration.) Structurally, it moves traditionally — the “Theme and Cadence” opener is such an effective introduction to a character than the first five minutes of any Spielberg film. But from its second movement — oddly titled “Blues…” — the concerto deepens in color and intensifies in kinetics. A playful scherzo veers into familiarly frenetic territory, and its mournful finale (“Song”) finds Ma retracing a long, lyrical soliloquy – can a cello win an Oscar?
“Elegy for cello and orchestra” (1997)
In 2001 Ma released “Yo-Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams”, featuring the “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra”, along with a selection of short solo pieces and the composer’s devastating “Elegy for Cello and Orchestra”. in 1997. Williams composed “Elegy” for an acquaintance – “a brilliant young violinist, [who] lost her two young children in tragic circumstances. It’s a piece that clearly shows just how much Williams has to do with shaping the emotional complexity of the films he scores. Yes, it has explicitly gloomy stretches, deftly sculpted by Ma with expressionistic play that never skews maudlin. But the magic of “Elegy” is in its uncanny embodiment of heartbreak – its competing dimensions and unknowable depths. Joy and despair don’t push and pull around the room so much that they cast shadows on each other. It’s a fascinating suspension of loss.
Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos are here to give Beethoven the power-trio treatment
‘Fanfare for Fenway’ (2012)
One thing is certain about John Williams: the man loves the band. He has cupboards. A Marching Band for Boston’s Centennial! (Translation: 350th anniversary.) A marching band for the Statue of Liberty! A marching band for… Michael Dukakis? (They can’t all be winners.) Attendees at the June 23 anniversary gala will have their competitive spirits subconsciously stoked by the most famous of its brassy, sparkling declarations, the “Olympic fanfare and theme.” And specifically for that important band of overlap in the Venn diagram of sports fanatics and Williams fans, I’d like to recommend “Fanfare for Fenway.” It’s a rousing appeal to the proverbial plaque composed for Boston Baseball Stadium’s centennial celebration, and premiered on opening day 2012. Appropriately and effortlessly, it captures the feeling of wonder “anything can happen” which electrified the city after its victories in the World Series. in 2004 and 2007. (And thankfully, Williams refrains from any references to “Sweet Caroline.”)
‘Violin Concerto No. 2’ (2021)
Williams’ frequent collaborator Anne-Sophie Mutter will appear at the gala to perform “Markings,” a composition composed for her by Williams that premiered at Tanglewood in 2017, as well as special arrangements of film themes for Mutter released on their 2019 album, “Through the Stars.” But for a broader view of the crackling chemistry between composer and violinist, listen to Williams’ “Violin Concerto No. 2,” premiered last July at Tanglewood and released this year by Deutsche Grammophon. A fiery concerto that takes full advantage of Mutter’s dynamism in three movements (“Prologue”, “Rounds”, “Dactyles”), it is also the portrait of a composer who continues to refine his vision – even if we see it too often through the eyes of others.
John Williams: 90th Anniversary Gala Concert June 23 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.
An earlier version of this story referred to a classic rendition of John Williams’ 1985 “Tuba Concerto” as having been performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. This performance was by the WDR Symphony Orchestra. The story has been corrected.