Tanglewood showcases the other John Williams


It was encouraging to see concerts being given once again at Tanglewood, and with a big crowd in attendance. Finally, we are getting back to something approaching normal. Not yet normal, to be sure. Tanglewood is currently limited to 50% attendance and three-foot distancing. But for a large facility that still means a lot of people. There were 2,400 in the (covered) Shed and 6,600 on the lawn.

On the strength of scores for dozens of very popular films, John Williams may be one of the best-known composers in the world. His music for Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Schindler’s List, etc. is known to millions of filmgoers but also to concert audiences. His music is featured regularly in pops concerts. But Williams is also a “serious” composer with more than 10 concertos, symphonic works and chamber music to his credit. On Friday evening at Tanglewood the Boston Pops presented a full concert of his film music. On Saturday came the first performance of a new Violin Concerto.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the Tanglewood audience made of the “serious” John Williams. The ubiquitous and much-admired John Williams is, after all, the Star Wars guy, the composer who writes brassy triumphal marches and syrupy melodies. The other John Williams serves up thorny dissonant textures and frequently tuneless works. The Violin Concerto No. 2 was a piece of this type in large measure, although it did also provide pages of touching melancholy. But I would guess that the audience got much more out of the encore, Across the Stars, an arrangement for violin and orchestra of some love music from one of the Star Wars scores.

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Anne-Sophie Mutter, as photogenic as ever in a strapless bright yellow gown, fully embraced both pieces with near-flawless intonation and warm tone.

The concert began with a short piece by the Black American violinist-composer Jessie Montgomery. It was lively and well-crafted but I felt sorry for Montgomery all the same. Her little piece didn’t stand a chance next to the Hollywood mega-glitz of a John Williams. Great to have a piece played by the Boston Symphony but I doubt many in the audience will remember that it was played at all.

For the record, it is indeed astonishing that someone 89-years-old could produce a major orchestral piece half an hour long. And what’s more, conduct it with plenty of energy and a fine technique. Whatever one thinks of the quality of his music, John Williams is unquestionably a remarkable musician.

Andris Nelsons conducted the Montgomery, Copland and Stravinsky works and the orchestra was in great form.

I watched the concert from the comfort of my home via streaming from DG Stage. The cost was 9.90 Euros and both video and audio quality were very good. However, there were no announcements nor were any notes provided. Some information about the music, especially the new concerto, would have been welcome. Not to mention some information about the far less well-known Montgomery.


Jesse Montgomery: Starblast

John Williams: Violin Concerto No. 2 (world premiere)

Copland: Quiet City

Stravinsky: Firebird Suite

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Thomas Rolfs, trumpet
Robert Sheena, English horn
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
John Williams, conductor

July 24, 2021
Koussevitsky Music Shed
Tanglewood Music Center

Stream available on DG Stage until July 27



About Author

Former conductor and broadcaster, Paul E. Robinson, is the author of four books on conductors, Digital Editor for Classical Voice America, and a regular contributor to La Scena Musicale.

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