John Williams’ 80th birthday celebration at Tanglewood
August 18, 2012 performance; Dave Read.
Tanglewood rung up another glittering gala celebration, honoring the 80th birthday of Boston Pops Laureate Conductor John Williams with no less a musical luminary than soprano Jessye Norman serving as M.C. But to refer to John Williams as Boston Pops Laureate Conductor is like referring to Bob Dylan as a former Minnesotan.
Williams’ compositions, especially those written for movies, have global appeal and place him in the pantheon of popular art. As pointed out by Leonard Slatkin, who conducted several segments of tonight’s program, John Williams may have surpassed Beethoven in writing the world’s most familiar musical motif. Slatkin first sounded the four notes that open Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, then declared that Williams beat him by two with the oh-so-familiar two notes from his Theme for Jaws.
Steven Speilberg, whose local ties include service on the board of the Norman Rockwell Museum, took the stage and noted that their collaborations have spanned half of Williams’ life. Other encomia were presented, fittingly, via the big screen. The festivities began with anchorman Brian Williams, no relation, appearing to do a fake newscast about Williams’ 80th birthday being celebrated at an “unknown location,” before zooming in via Google earth on Tanglewood. Another movie titan, George Lucas, also added his best wishes from a remote location.
Photos of John Williams’ 80th birthday celebration at Tanglewood
The initial musical salvo was delivered, in dramatic fashion, by the US Army Herald Trumpets, flanking the stage with their director conducting from the center aisle, playing Williams’s Olympic Fanfare and Theme, along with the Boston Pops under the baton of Keith Lockhart.
The big screen unfurled again and there was President Obama adding his accolades, on behalf of a grateful nation. Aslo “live via videotape” were Gustavo Dudamel and Deborah Borda from Williams’s “hometown orchestra” the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His orchestral work Soundings was performed at the opening of their new home, Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003, and also performed at Tanglewood a few years ago.
Video greetings from the Boston Red Sox entertained Williams and the huge audience returning to their seats, blankets, benches, and lawn chairs after intermission followed by Fanfare for Fenway, Williams composition for the ballpark’s 100th anniversary.
Another screen drop and here was Seiji Ozawa, filmed with a Red Sox tapestry in the background, looking and sounding fairly good considering his condition. With a heartfelt tribute to his friend, the Maestro seemed to be asking forgiveness for being absent, leaving his legion of fans hopeful for his eventual return to Tanglewood.
75th Tanglewood anniversary season
Whereas the Boston Pops hasn’t missed a beat since Williams handed the baton to Lockhart in 1995, the Boston Symphony Orchestra hasn’t been so lucky in the wake of Ozawa’s 29 year tenure. For all you can tell from the audience, though, that may be purely an administrative matter, because this 75th Tanglewood anniversary season has been a beauty.
The way this program progressed, patrons were guessing who’d appear the next time the video screen dropped. Some expected the Queen of England herself! Why not – given Williams’ Olympic Fanfare, London 2012, and her own Jubilee…? After all, a member of her court, Sir Paul McCartney, made a video appearance at James Taylor’s 60th birthday party at Tanglewood a couple summer’s ago. Nope, no Queen; but Bill Clinton did chime in, remember him?
Of course James Taylor was on hand, to sing You’ve Got a Friend, in a duet with BSO cellist Owen Young, and to speak of his affection and gratitude for Williams, who invited Taylor to play his first gig with the Pops 20 years ago. Williams also introduced him to “the love of my life, Caroline.”
Besides Ms. Norman’s rendition of This Song is You, a musical highpoint was the performance of Williams’ composition for the Obama inauguration, Air and Simple Gifts, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, cello, Gil Shaham, violin, Gabriela Montero, piano, and Anthony McGill, clarinet. Another was Three Concert Pieces conducted by Shi-Yeon Sung, former BSO assistnt conductor, which was made up of one movement from each of 3 concerti by Williams: for Oboe, with Keisuke Wakao soloing, for Horn, with James Sommerville soloing, and for Tuba, with Mike Roylance soloing.
Fitting tribute to the Wiliams’s genius in scoring movies came by way of Yo-Yo Ma and the Pops on Going to School from Memoirs of a Geisha; Gil Shaham and the Pops performing the Theme for Schindler’s List, and finally, the Main title from Star Wars, all conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
The grand finale of John Williams’ 80th Birthday Ceebration at Tanglewood was his own Happy Birthday Variations, with the Pops very ably augmented by the brass and woodwind players of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. That piece is great fun, seemng to sample the most memorable and exciting motifs from the composer’s oeuvre. Then a loud POP and streamers and confetti rained on the audience, as they stood to applaud Mr. Williams, now onstage with his friends and colleagues, having the time of his life.