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The music of John Williams is more than just Hollywood movie scores

The 90-year-old composer is being honored June 23 at the Kennedy Center with a National Symphony Orchestra birthday bash featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Spielberg and Anne-Sophie Mutter

(Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for LAPA/Washington Post illustration)
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No one would ever mistake me for a movie person. Sit me in front of the average blockbuster and I’m far more likely to get engrossed with the texture of my popcorn.

This, however, changes abruptly when the music of John Williams enters the mix. The esteemed conductor and composer (who turned 90 in February) is behind the scores of dozens upon dozens of the greatest films in the history of cinema, several of which I can make all the way through.

But Williams also is behind a significant portion of my early education in music. Along with “Looney Tunes” and “Fantasia,” it was Williams who schooled me in understanding music as a language all its own. I wore out my cassettes of the soundtracks to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — they were the first classical albums I ever owned. (Though I wouldn’t realize that until just now.)

Williams taught me that music could caption action, lend subtext to silence, illuminate characters anew and supply entire universes with a spectrum of invisible colors. He could summon sound as massive and monolithic as a descending spaceship or as fragile and fleeting as the beam of the projector. Listening to him I knew roughly where the approaching shark was and exactly when Elliott’s bicycle tires left the ground. Williams made the movies portable and playable in my own imagination (and thus liberated me from having to sit still).

In honor of the prolific composer and conductor, on June 23, the National Symphony Orchestra will throw a grand 90th birthday bash.

For “John Williams: A 90th Birthday Gala,” conductor Stéphane Denève will lead the NSO in a sprawling celebration of Willams’s famed film music. Special guests cellist Yo-Yo Ma, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter will cue up selections from some of Williams’s most beloved scores, including “Close Encounters,” “E.T.,” “Harry Potter,” “Indiana Jones” and “Schindler’s List.” The program will also highlight Williams’s most recently lauded work, the score to Kobe Bryant and Glen Keane’s Oscar-winning 2017 short film “Dear Basketball.

A pair of companion concerts flanking the gala celebration will focus on two of Williams’s best-known scores — representing a fraction of his 29 collaborations with Spielberg. (Their latest project, “The Fabelmans,” is due out in November). Steven Reineke will conduct the composer’s scores for “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park” on June 22 and 24, respectively. (The NSO will also perform Williams’s score for “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” with a screening of the film at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on July 29.)

Toasting to classical music under the stars

Taken together, the birthday party is three days of music that will hit all the subconscious buttons that Williams has wired into our collective memories over the past five decades — a rich catalogue of instantly identifiable melodies, moods and motifs that can conjure entire worlds with the stroke of a bow.

The party, however, conspicuously forgot to invite Williams’s concert music — the province of his output that truly opened my ears to his compositional mastery. (It also leaves out selections from “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a deep cut that represents some of his best work with Spielberg, but that’s another story.)

I get it. We have come to equate Williams with Hollywood so closely that it can be hard to fathom him freed of cinema’s frame.

But in Williams’s many concertos, chamber works and solo pieces, his familiar compositional voice is fully present, albeit put to completely different use. His connections to multiple classical traditions register more clearly: his Berg-ian penchant for darkness and dissonance, his Copland-esque ease with evoking natural grandeur, his inheritance of gestures from Debussy, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Korngold.

Here are some of my favorite Williams works that have nothing to do with the movies — and have a lot more depth than you might expect from a composer we associate with the silver screen.

‘Concerto for Flute and Orchestra’ (1969)

In the 1960s, Williams was just embarking on his film-scoring career and, by 1967, had more than a dozen scores to his name (which, at the time, was “Johnny”). He also scored (in the other sense) an Oscar nomination for his sumptuous music for “Valley of the Dolls,” which included arrangements of songs by André and Dory Previn and not a small hint of his flair for drama. The “Concerto for Flute and Orchestra” arrived at what seems like a cusp of confidence as Johnny became John (sometimes “John T.”) and his music started taking its very particular shape. Icy strings yawn behind a searching flute in its opening measures, and a cinematic tension seems to pull it forward, around creepy corners, down long, uncertain corridors of dissonance and into reassuringly familiar landscapes lit by Williams’s awakening melodic courage. So much of what would appear on-screen over the next decade can be heard in primordial form in this stunner of a concerto — from the haunting high tension of his score for Robert Altman’s 1972 thriller “Images” to the spectral strangeness of his Oscar-nominated score for Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

‘Tuba Concerto’ (1985)

Perhaps because Williams’s music is so consistently anchored to a rich visual experience, in the absence of a film it can be tempting to superimpose your own narrative on his compositions. This is especially so with his concertos, in which the solos — more so than with most composers — seem to have a serious case of main-character syndrome. By the middle of Williams’s 1985 “Tuba Concerto,” written for the 100th anniversary of the Boston Pops (the orchestra Williams conducted for 14 seasons), you’ll find yourself rooting for its lowing protagonist, so oft forgotten at the back of the brass section. A classic performance of the concerto by the WDR Symphony Orchestra showcases the chops of master tubist Hans Nickel, but also the uncanny lyricism and humanity Williams is able to write into the instrument’s bellowing, sometimes shuddering tones. By 1985, the composer had already crafted instantly recognizable leitmotifs for the likes of Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones and Elliott Taylor (he who babysat E.T.), and his well-honed affinity for an unlikely hero is on full display here.

‘Concerto for Cello and Orchestra’ (1994)

By 1994, Williams and Yo-Yo Ma had performed several times together, with the composer here and there accompanying the cellist on piano in performances of works by Haydn, Elgar and Dvorak. This concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and composed specifically for Ma, premiered in 1994 at the opening of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall in Lenox, Mass. (Ma also gave a memorable performance of the concerto at the Kennedy Center in 2017 as part of a JFK centennial celebration.) Structurally, it moves traditionally — the opening “Theme and Cadenza” as effective an introduction to a character as the first five minutes of any Spielberg film. But from its second movement — a curiously titled “Blues … ” — onward, the concerto deepens in color and intensifies in kineticism. A mischievous scherzo veers into familiarly frenetic territory, and its doleful finale (”Song”) finds Ma tracing a long, lyrical soliloquy — can a cello win an Oscar?

‘Elegy for Cello and Orchestra’ (1997)

In 2001, Ma released “Yo-Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams,” featuring the “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra,” as well as a selection of short solo pieces and the composer’s devastating 1997 “Elegy for Cello and Orchestra.” Williams composed “Elegy” for an acquaintance — “a brilliant young violinist, [who] lost her two young children in tragic circumstances.” It’s a piece that makes clear how much Williams has to do with shaping the emotional complexity of the films he scores. Yes, it has explicitly mournful stretches, skillfully carved by Ma with expressionistic playing that never skews maudlin. But the magic of the “Elegy” is in its uncanny embodiment of grief — its competing dimensions and unknowable depths. Joy and despair don’t push and pull in the piece so much as cast shadows over each other. It’s a mesmerizing suspension of loss.

Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos are out to give Beethoven the power-trio treatment

‘Fanfare for Fenway’ (2012)

One thing’s for sure about John Williams: The man loves a fanfare. He’s got cabinets of 'em. A fanfare for Boston’s sesquarcentennial! (Translation: 350th birthday.) A fanfare for the Statue of Liberty! A fanfare for … Michael Dukakis? (They can’t all be winners.) Attendees at the June 23 birthday gala will have their competitive spirits subconsciously stoked by the most famous of his gleaming brassy pronouncements, the “Olympic Fanfare and Theme.” And specifically for this sizable swath of overlap in the Venn diagram of sports fanatics and Williams fans, I’d like to recommend “Fanfare for Fenway.” It’s a rousing call to the proverbial plate composed for the Boston ballpark’s centennial celebration, and premiered on Opening Day 2012. Appropriately and effortlessly, it captures the “anything can happen” sense of wonder that electrified the city after its drought-breaking World Series wins in 2004 and 2007. (And mercifully, Williams abstains from any references to “Sweet Caroline.”)

‘Violin Concerto No. 2’ (2021)

Frequent Williams collaborator Anne-Sophie Mutter will appear at the gala to perform “Markings,” a composition composed for her by Williams and which premiered at Tanglewood in 2017, as well as special arrangements of film themes for Mutter released on their 2019 album, “Across the Stars.” But for a more widescreen take on the crackling chemistry between the composer and the violinist, give a listen to Williams’s “Violin Concerto No. 2,” premiered last July at Tanglewood and released this year by Deutsche Grammophon. A spirited concerto that takes full advantage of Mutter’s dynamism over three movements (” Prologue,” “Rounds,” “Dactyls”), it’s also a portrait of a composer who continues to refine his vision — even if we too often experience it through the eyes of others.

John Williams: The 90th Birthday Gala Concert June 23 at the Kennedy Center.


An earlier version of this story referred to a classic performance of John Williams's 1985 “Tuba Concerto” as having been performed by the New York Philharmonic. That performance was by the WDR Symphony Orchestra. The story has been corrected.