John Williams, Putting the Concert in Focus

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 29, 2005

Leonard Slatkin thoroughly believes in John Williams. The National Symphony Orchestra's musical director frequently conducts the prolific film composer's scores and argues that he belongs with Stravinsky and Mahler in the 20th-century musical pantheon. Last night at the Kennedy Center, Slatkin turned the podium over to Williams, who led the NSO through an alluring and occasionally expectation-defying performance of his concert scores.

Williams's total command of orchestral color and his sensitive musical imagination allow him to conjure any cinematic mood or action in a highly idiomatic fashion. Yet he also has completed a wide range of commissions from orchestras around the world attracted to his genial and grand sound, which is closely akin to the music of Aaron Copland.

"Tributes! For Seiji," which Williams wrote in 1999 to commemorate the 20-years-plus tenure of Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa, made for a rousing concert overture. The quick-tempo work is somewhat of an orchestral showpiece, allowing each principal section to pass around the bright main theme. Williams intelligently structures this inventive material with muted intonation, tightly crafted fugues and patiently developed climaxes.

Further surprises were in store in the two featured works for violin and orchestra. With his introspective and somber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Williams pays tribute to his wife, who died tragically in 1974. Although more quiescent than plaintive, the concerto addresses a loneliness and isolation worlds away from Williams's typically epic music.

This concentrated and inward-focused quality is especially apparent in the way that the orchestra and the soloist never quite come together.

Gil Shaham, the superstar Israeli violinist and regular NSO collaborator, was the evening's soloist. With an incandescent tone and sensitive phrasing, Shaham infused a warm serenity in the score. He gorgeously traced a golden melody over muted strings of the orchestra in the delicate second movement, and the two outer movement cadenzas were studies in commanding violin technique and crystalline purity of sound.

In the more recent "TreeSong," Williams ethereally evokes his love of nature and an ancient tree species found in China and in Boston, of all places. Shaham, for whom Williams composed the work in 2000, showed a special affinity for this Asian-influenced score. Flowing passages from Shaham dropped out nicely from the fertile musical fabric, blending richly with earthy woodwinds and glowing percussion.

After all this rapt and intelligent music, the closing excerpts from "The Unfinished Journey" were a disappointment. Written to accompany a 1999 Steven Spielberg documentary, this music came off as a triumphant collection of saccharine melodies and gratuitous brass fanfares. One was left wondering whether this score belonged in one of the NSO's regular subscription concerts.

This generally fine concert repeats this afternoon and tomorrow evening.

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