John Williams in the concert hall: An introduction

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John Williams in the concert hall: An introduction
The composer John Williams at his home in Los Angeles, Jan. 31, 2022. Listen to five works that Hollywood’s reigning composer has written for symphony orchestras and star soloists like Yo-Yo Ma. Chantal Anderson/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- John Williams has been Hollywood’s leading composer for more than a half-century. A keeper of the golden age flame of soaring grandeur and indelible melodies, he is the musical mind behind the two-note terror of “Jaws,” the operatic fanfare of “Star Wars” and the mischievous charm of “Harry Potter” — along with the sounds of some 50 other Academy Award-nominated scores.

Over the years, Williams has also maintained a robust career in the concert hall. But while his soundtracks are the stuff of cultural immortality, his symphonic works have never found a foothold in the repertory. Even now, as his music is programmed by the storied ensembles of Vienna and Berlin, it’s more likely to be “E.T.” than his “Essay for Strings.”

Williams’ concert works tend to be skillful but less imaginative than his film scores. And some — particularly pièces d’occasion like the larky “Soundings,” written for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 — are understandably obscure. At his best, though, he is a vivid tone painter with a masterly command of orchestration and form. Here are five examples.

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1976)

Reminiscent at times of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and, like it, written in the wake of loss — for Williams, the sudden death of his wife — this entry into the genre moves fluidly, and often unpredictably, in and out of lyricism, volatility and breathlessness. Premiered in 1981 by Mark Peskanov, it found a broader audience when recorded three decades later by Gil Shaham and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with which Williams has a long association.

‘The Five Sacred Trees’ (1993)

More or less a bassoon concerto, this commission for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary opens with a long solo that conjures the first (and wisest) of five trees from Celtic mythology. The movements that follow are arboreal portraits in music: a puckish, dancing duet for the bassoon and a violin; a mysterious nocturne; curlicue phrases choked into fragments; and patient brooding.

Cello Concerto (1994)

Williams composed this for Yo-Yo Ma to inaugurate Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. (Among Williams’ works for the instrument, it has aged better than Three Pieces for Solo Cello, a 2001 meditation on Black history with titles like “Pickin’.”) Tailored to its soloist like a film score to its scenes, the concerto is designed to reflect different angles of Ma’s artistry: as a heroic virtuoso, a nimble genre-hopper and, in the ruminative finale, an expressive communicator.

Horn Concerto (2003)

Dale Clevenger — the Chicago Symphony Orchestra horn master for whom this was written, and who died last month — once told an interviewer that he had requested an “audience-friendly” concerto from Williams. The result is difficult to play yet often warm, while also being nearly programmatic in its succession of tone poems that verge on the Coplandesque in the third-movement Pastorale.

‘Markings’ (2017)

If this atmospheric and discursive work seems like the start of something larger, it kind of is. Written at the urging of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and leaning into her trademark eloquence, it was the first in a series of collaborations that have since included an album of Williams’ film music arranged for her and orchestra, as well as his Second Violin Concerto, which premiered last year and comes to Carnegie Hall in New York in April.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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