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Classical Review

John Williams Performs Tribute to Composers

By Kevin Der

Film Night at Tanglewood

Boston Pops Orchestra

John Williams, conductor

Stanley Donen, special guest

Josh Groban, vocalist

Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005

One of my favorite musical venues is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Pops. Its wide, sweeping greens, numerous performance arenas, and beautiful views of the Berkshire Mountains make it a magical place for musical exhibition. For concerts taking place at the outdoor Koussevitzky Shed, thousands of music lovers make the Tanglewood lawns their picnic area, bringing elaborate setups complete with real furniture, food and wine, and even light fixtures.

There were tens of thousands of people in attendance for this film music concert, which John Williams has conducted as an annual tradition for many years. Williams recently composed the scores for the films “Star Wars Episode III” and “War of the Worlds,” and is reported to be working on the scores for Spielberg’s upcoming “Munich,” as well as Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Unfortunately, Williams left the Harry Potter franchise after scoring the first three films. As terrible news as this is, I found some consolation in experiencing his live concert this year.

The program opened with Alfred Newman’s ubiquitous “20th Century Fox Fanfare.” Hearing it live from the Boston Pops is a completely different experience than in the theater. Huge snare drums and horns projected out over the lawns, startling me. It was an enormous sound. Williams immediately followed with Korngold’s march from “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” The piece begins with a cymbal crash, leading into the main theme in the horns. Supported by tambourines and other percussion, it gives way to low brass lines and then a sweeping melody in the strings. Played tightly and boisterously, the piece was a fine opener, but there are other equally fine opening pieces Williams has used before, such as Herrmann’s “The Death Hunt” from “On Dangerous Ground.”

Williams followed with three pieces in tribute to three composers who recently passed away. Jerry Goldsmith’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was marvelously performed — the horn fanfares impeccably played, driving forward at exactly the right tempo. It was quite a treat to hear Williams performing Goldsmith. Raksin’s “Laura” followed, which Williams frequently draws out from his repertoire, featuring concertmistress Tamara Smirnova, whose projection is so considerable I’m positive I can hear her instrument even when she’s playing with the other violins. Finally, Elmer Berstein’s “Magnificent Seven” was quite good, both energetic and lively.

The rest of the first half was a tribute to Stanley Donen, a long-time film director who has worked with Fred Astaire and other legendary actors and actresses. Donen, who appeared on stage to share anecdotes of his films, chaffed with Williams comically, drawing laughs from the audience. Williams accompanied footage (projected overhead) of five songs from five films, in each demonstrating his incredible skill of perfectly synchronizing the orchestra with the film. In “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” from “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” the orchestra matched leaps, jumps, and steps with the dancers on screen — the musicians’ notes exactly accompanied every footfall; it was simply astounding to watch and hear. Williams accomplished similar feats scoring Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” My favorite of these songs was Fred Astaire’s dance in “Royal Wedding,” in which he dances up the walls and on the ceiling in his apartment. Donen lovingly explained this choice — he wanted to physically show Astaire completely in love with a woman, and hence the dance on the ceiling. The entire room, including the furniture and the camera shooting it, had to be bolted down onto an apparatus that turned like a hamster wheel, with Astaire dancing inside.

The second half began with Williams’ march from “Superman,” which was slightly under tempo, but still marvelous to hear live. Then came Josh Groban, a young, up-and-coming star vocalist, who performed with Williams at Symphony Hall in 2001. His performance here might have been more enjoyable if hundreds of self-named “Groban-nites,” his fan base, were not at the concert. Grown men and women, they crowded the shed wearing name badges and clutching glow sticks, and wouldn’t stop shouting when Groban came on stage.

Groban’s first song was his best, the love theme from “Cinema Paradiso,” which Williams loves to perform as a purely orchestral piece. Impressively, Groban sang the Italian lyrics well, though he just couldn’t go wrong with one of the most beautiful themes ever written. He followed with “Mi mancherai” from “Il Postino,” which was enjoyable, “Gira con me,” and, revoltingly, “Remember” from James Horner’s score for “Troy.” When Groban sang Don Maclean’s “Vincent,” the Groban-nites broke out the glow sticks over their heads, attempting to wave them together in a synchronized fashion, but failing miserably. I was strongly reminded of seven-year-olds at a birthday party who did similar things at a theater screening of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” In general, Groban has a pleasing voice, but he failed to hit his highest notes and seemed to jerk his head awkwardly when doing so.

Williams followed up with more of his own music accompanying a film montage. He opened with “Journey to the Island” and “The Raptor Attack,” both from “Jurassic Park.” The transition to “Holiday Flight” from “Home Alone” was a bit awkward since the “Jurassic Park” footage continued for a few extra seconds. I was hoping for “Somewhere In My Memory,” but we didn’t get it. Some great footage from the mothership scene in “Close Encounters” was next, but strangely, the music for the rousing finale was cut short right at the climax and clumsily transitioned into the five-note communication theme. The montage concluded with a mediocre second half of “Harry’s Wondrous World.” As usual, Williams accepted the encore invitation with the “Flying Theme” from “E.T.”

This concert was quite satisfying, and far superior to the choked film concert Bruce Hangen gave at Symphony Hall in May. When the Maestro is around, there’s no fooling around.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra begins its 2005–2006 season at Boston’s Symphony Hall on Sept. 30.