Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Phila. Orchestra John Williams festival balances the composer's two sides

The Philadelphia Orchestra's two-week John Williams festival ideally balanced the two lives of this hugely well-known, oft-awarded composer - and left you feeling that you knew the personality behind the music.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's two-week John Williams festival ideally balanced the two lives of this hugely well-known, oft-awarded composer - and left you feeling that you knew the personality behind the music.

Principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève integrated two Williams concertos into regular subscription concerts - showing how much they do belong there, especially with the deluxe treatment that came with the likes of James Ehnes, who played the Williams Violin Concerto at Thursday at the Kimmel Center with the insights and commitment he brings to better-known repertoire.

Of course, the Oscar-winning film music needed to be acknowledged. Wednesday night's concert was devoted to that - but it did not confine itself to iconic moments from E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dracula, Schindler's List, and others. Some of the music was accompanied by film excerpts. One scene from Jaws was shown without music first, and repeated with music, showing how effectively Williams creates musical close-ups of the characters' inner lives.

More endearing were the video interviews punctuating the concert. In one, Williams admitted that in the first few weeks of working on a film, he has no idea what he's doing. Near the end, Williams himself conducted some selections and told stories that made his adoring audience love him more.

Here's one: Williams related how he had been so profoundly moved by seeing a rough cut of Schindler's List that he told director Stephen Spielberg the film deserved a composer better than he. "I know," replied Spielberg. "But they're all dead."

By the end - which included three encores that added an extra 30 minutes to the two-hour concert, I was hearing some of the loudest-ever ovations to rattle Verizon Hall.

On Thursday, the audience still seemed to be digesting the Violin Concerto when Williams took his bow. Written in 1974 in honor of his late wife, singer/actress Barbara Ruick, it predates Williams' most famous music. One looks for points of reference from his later work, and there are few if any. But maybe because I grew up loving Ruick's turn as Kay in the ensemble recording of Gershwin's Oh, Kay!, I felt a keen connection with the grief behind the concerto. After Williams gets Prokofiev out of his system during the first movement - and there's quite a lot of that sort of angular lyricism - the cadenza turns into a highly personal soliloquy.

From there, the concerto doesn't look back,with concise witty ending rather than some full-blown recapitulation. The second movement has a lullaby-like rocking motion and a beautifully lyric second melody that the solo violin seems to cast out into the orchestra, causing all manner of ripples.

The final movement has previously reminded me of the finale of the Barber Violin Concerto, but that wasn't the case on Thursday. Maybe I'd been studying the un-revised version of the concerto. Maybe Ehnes, with his customary magnetic luster, and Denève, with his passionate devotion to Williams, found their way to the center of the music, which often feels too ruminative to be a finale. Finally, the piece seems to say, "Oh, all right, I'll be a violin concerto now" and delivers a splashy finish.

Similar tendencies were apparent in his film music excerpts on Wednesday. They frequently start with more personal musical adventures, whether excursions into polytonality or the microtonal sense of apprehension in Close Encounters. Later, the music does what it's expected to do, such as providing that grand finale for the film's final master shot. Williams the artist becomes Williams the craftsman, but he still adds rogue notes that help you experience familiar gestures anew.

The orchestra played Williams' music with total ownership. And on Thursday, Denève didn't slight the program's traditional repertoire. The thoughtfully parceled phrasing and delicate sonorities he brought to Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte prepared you for the elegaic elements of Williams' Violin Concerto. Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 certainly benefitted from Denève's innate ebullience. It was a well-played performance with a leaner version of the Philadelphia sound resembling the Dresden Staatskapelle. Fine with me.