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concert review: The Art of Film Music at the Pops

John Williams Reprises Epic Favorites, New Scores

By Kevin Der

John Williams Spectacular

Boston Pops Orchestra

John Williams, conductor

Tamara Smirnova, violin

Martha Babcock, cello

May 11 – 13,16, 2006

Symphony Hall, Boston

One of the first concert series of the Boston Pops season at Symphony Hall has traditionally been film music conducted by John Williams. He has maintained this annual event since stepping down as conductor of the Boston Pops in 1993, with the exception of last year, when he was too busy composing. This concert’s program draws upon Williams’ most well known works in addition to his recent scores. It also incorporates film music from other legendary composers, creating a fine collection of rousing and passionate repertoire.

The concert opened with “A Hymn to New England,” which Williams wrote for the opening of the Omni Theater at the Museum of Science two decades ago. It is pure Americana, with brass fanfares and triumphant string melodies that slightly recall Copland. Three pieces from “Star Wars” followed: “Main Title and Rebel Blockade Runner” was brilliantly performed, with its driving rhythms and enormous sound conjuring nostalgic images from the opening titles of Episode IV. “Anakin’s Theme” from Episode I and “Imperial March” from Episode V came next, a wise choice suggestive of how the innocent, lyrical tune for Anakin changes into Darth Vader’s theme through motivic borrowings and harmonic imitation, representing the character’s transformation from boy to Sith Lord.

Williams continued through another of his grand fantasy epics with three pieces from his recent “Harry Potter” scores. The first film’s “Hedwig’s Theme” employs the quick, bell-like celeste to suggest a light, magically charged flight. To the joy of all, Williams chose to perform the full concert version of this piece, an extended arrangement that passes the celeste themes to the strings and horns, eventually erupting into a grand, full-bodied orchestral climax that the musicians captured flawlessly. “Aunt Marge’s Waltz,” from the third film, is a comical, chaotic piece underscoring the scene in which Harry casts a spell on Marge causing her to swell like a balloon, soon lost to the sky. The dance combines with heavy, low brass allusions to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” employing arpeggios and descending chromatic scales over shots of a cuckoo clock, resulting in a humorous, inflated feel.

Finally, “Harry’s Wondrous World” incorporates a number of musical ideas from the first film, including both heroic and introspective themes for Harry, a Quidditch fanfare, and others. Unusual French to tonic harmonic progressions lend an exotic, sorcerous mood. It is perhaps the most majestic and satisfying piece from the last decade of Williams’ scores.

Selections from two Spielberg films about children also appeared. “Jim’s New Life,” from “Empire of the Sun,” relays the youthful vigor of a boy imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp following the evacuation of Shanghai’s International Settlement during the Second World War. The appearance of this rare concert piece was a delight. “Flight to Neverland” from the less serious “Hook” is one of Williams’ most rousing flying themes, often performed by the Pops. Few of his compositions can send the listener soaring more than this sweeping, turning string melody.

Williams recently composed the score to “Memoirs of a Geisha,” about the rarefied world of Japanese culture in which geisha are trained to entertain men with their beauty and artistic skills. Sayuri, a young geisha in training, is musically represented by a single cello, whose dark, rich timbre captures her deep longing for true love in “Sayuri’s Theme.” The Chairman, the man she yearns for, appears through sweet, tender violin solos in “The Chairman’s Waltz” that evoke his kindness towards her. Martha Babcock, cello, and Concertmistress Tamara Smirnova handled these solo passages with impressive grace. Finally, “Brush on Silk,” a brave concert choice, is largely athematic with plucked cello and wooden percussive effects that yield a seemingly authentic Japanese sound. With his usual calm disposition, Williams allowed his soloists expressive freedom while occasionally establishing a deliberate tempo when necessary. Interestingly, his conducting becomes most physical and involved during slow, tender passages, seemingly to coax maximum expression from his players.

In the first of several pieces by other composers, Smirnova performed the main theme from Ennio Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso,” a stunningly poignant score. This arrangement also integrated the love theme in the film that was actually composed by Morricone’s son Andrea. The beauty of this sweeping melody is simply beyond words.

Reprising a tribute from last August at Tanglewood, Williams also showcased well-known scores from three film music giants who passed away in 2004. David Raksin drew inspiration for the tragic violin theme of the title character in “Laura” upon learning that his spouse was leaving him. Agonized ninth chords demanding resolution and Smirnova’s mastery recreated the beautiful woman Laura who captured hearts even after her death simply through her image. The rich melodies of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Star Trek” theme and Elmer Bernstein’s Western “The Magnificent Seven” also filled Symphony Hall gloriously.

The single miscalculation of the evening was an arrangement called “Monsters, Beauties, and Heroes,” with short passages from “Jaws” and Steiner’s “King Kong”; “Casablanca” and “An Affair to Remember”; and “Superman” and Korngold’s “Robin Hood.” Marvelous concert selections on their own, they formed a piece overfilled with competing musical ideas. Accompanied by a film montage of poorly chosen characters with an absurd spiraling camera, the piece was lacking. A similar montage of athletes for Williams’ marvelous “The Olympic Spirit” again proved unnecessary and distracting. The masterpieces performed at these concerts capture the images within, relieving the listener from needing the film at all.

Williams reciprocated tremendous ovations from the audience with two familiar, crowd-pleasing encores — the Raiders march from “Indiana Jones” and the Flying theme from “E.T.” Though wonderful to hear, they are old-hat encores that Williams uses virtually every concert. Less-familiar favorites like themes from “Home Alone” or even “Parade of the Slave Children” from the second Indiana Jones film would be wonderful encores. Nevertheless, any concert conducted by Williams is an experience to cherish, and this program brought out the best in the Maestro and the Pops.

The Boston Pops season extends through July 4, 2006, culminating in a Fireworks Spectacular that evening, open to the public on the Boston Esplanade.