Friday, May 25, 2007
There are a few things every MIT student should experience before leaving Boston. The Freedom Trail, the Museum of Science, the Museum of Fine Arts, and walking through the Esplanade are obvious choices, if only because they’re free. But equally essential to get that authentic Boston experiences we out-of-towners pay so much tuition for is witnessing the power and awesomeness that is the Boston Pops.
On Friday, May 25 the Boston Pops put on Film Night, an evening of music from the movies conducted by Mr. Movie Music, and Laureate Conductor of the Pops, John Williams. In case you don’t really follow music or movies, Williams is the man who’s given us the main themes to Star Wars, “Superman,” “Harry Potter,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.,” “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” “Shindler’s List,” and literally dozens of others.
But, all too often, those we love and admire turn out to be less than worthy of our adoration in real life, either snubbing fans or actively antagonizing them. Imagine my relief, then, when I saw Williams walk out on stage and react warmly to the audience’s frenzied applause. The jovial guy in his white beard actually seemed surprised! His brief and intermittent remarks were funny and often self-deprecating, and when he received numerous standing ovations he repeatedly pointed out the musicians in the orchestra, apparently uncomfortable taking all the credit.
My love of John Williams aside, though, there was a concert too. It began with a tribute to Bernard Herrmann, who composed the scores to such classics as “Citizen Kane,” “Psycho,” and “Vertigo.” Williams explained how Herrmann was one of the first who truly utilized movie scores to their full potential; Williams’ decades-old admiration for his former colleague was clear, both through his words and his conducting. Both expressive and subtle, Williams brought the music for the various pieces to an emotional peak time and time again, his mastery with the baton obviously still intact.
But speaking of the music, the Boston Pops themselves were pretty great. Of course it sounds dumb saying it that way, but I realized as I sat there, transfixed by a live performance of music I’d heard countless times over loudspeakers, that this was the standard to which I always compared other orchestras. As in, when I went to MITSO concerts and thought they were very good (as I often did), I’d think, “man, they’re pretty good, some of them could be in the Boston Pops.” Hearing the actual Pops, I could understand their reputation; not one missed note, not one sour entrance, not one overlong finale, not one mistake. The entire string section even had their bows going up and down in unison, which I know is pretty trivial but still looks really darn cool.
After the first act, we were transported to Broadway, as the Pops played music from Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, and Chicago. Perhaps I’m biased, since I’ve always loved the Carousel “Waltz,” but hearing it in person was easily one of that night’s highlights. It was so good that, halfway through, I became sad when I realized it’d have to be over eventually. The other tunes were great too, in particular the flutter-tonguing trumpet soloist in Chicago’s “All That Jazz,” evoking a real nightclub singer, who may or may not be Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The real climax of the evening came in the third act, though, when Williams conducted some of his own compositions. “The Superman March” was all that it should be: powerful, amazing, and totally my favorite major seventh in all of music. Seriously, I almost cried every time I heard that chord. This was followed by a suite from the “Harry Potter” movies, which while not as easily identifiable as, say, “Star Wars,” illustrates just how good Williams is at creating (and then reminding us of) entire worlds, adding nuances of mystery, danger, or even romance. Finally, at least according to the program, was a Tribute to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, with the themes from “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “E.T.” all strung together, perfectly linked. Those were some of the nicest transitions I’ve ever heard. To make the evening even more surreal, there was a movie screen above the orchestra showing various scenes from each movie. Seeing Harrison Ford’s or Drew Barrymore’s faces larger than life, while hearing their respective movie’s music played live, right in front of me, was probably one of the best moments of my life.
As if this weren’t enough, Williams returned to the thunderous applause to play two encores. The first included Luke and Leia, from “Empire Strikes Back,” and the Mission theme for NBC’s Nightly News. Of the former Williams joked that it was written “before any of us realized they were brother and sister,” and of the latter that maybe someday NBC would play the entire theme, instead of just the first six seconds. Needless to say, they were beautiful and awesome. For his second encore, and final performance, he led us all in a stirring rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” that epitome of American marches. He even turned around to conduct the audience as we clapped along, but smilingly cut us off when it was time for the soloists to be heard. At the very end, giant flags dropped from the ceiling and confetti fell, proving that not only was it one of the best shows I’ve ever seen anywhere, but John Williams is one of the coolest guys on the planet.