Review: John Williams, at 90 and with a new violin concerto, is celebrated at L.A. Phil gala


There is nothing new in the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrating John Williams, as the orchestra did for its annual opening-night gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night. The orchestra has been happily celebrating Williams since it created a sensation mounting the first “Star Wars” Concert with Zubin Mehta at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977. It was the L.A. Phil that convinced Williams to conduct his own music (something nearly every orchestra in world has come to desire). Eight years ago, Gustavo Dudamel, possibly the world’s biggest Williams fan in the business, devoted a brilliant season-opening gala to Williams.

Celebrating Williams, who turned 90 this year, is, in fact, an industry. Surely no composer in history has ever been so awarded. He’s been a fixture at the Academy Awards since the first of 52 nominations in 1968 for “Valley of the Dolls.” He’s won five, to go along with his 25 Grammys and his Emmys and his BAFTAs and all the rest. It was announced Saturday that before Queen Elizabeth II died, she named Williams an Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire.

Beloved by each generation of audiences for a half century, Williams has done it all. International Movie Data Base cites 463 soundtrack credits for Williams and 166 film scores. Billions, yes, billions have heard and continue to hear the sound of the traditional orchestra thanks to Williams scores.

Yet, for all that, Williams has not attracted much attention, until very recently, for being part of the classical orchestral tradition — namely for his many concertos and other orchestral and chamber music pieces. Not even for his for highly publicized Cello Concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma in 1994, nor the violin, cello, clarinet and piano quartet “Air and Simple Gifts” he wrote for Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration.

The latest big-name, media-event Williams concerto, his second for violin and written for Anne-Sophie Mutter, had its premiere last summer by the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood with the composer conducting, and this time he struck gold. A gorgeous Deutsche Grammophon recording was rushed to release after the premiere.

The West Coast premiere of Williams’ Second Violin Concerto with Mutter and the composer conducting the L.A. Phil was the centerpiece of Tuesday’s gala. Dudamel’s role was to conduct brief excerpts from the film scores and to introduce Williams, whom he called one of the greatest composers of all time, taking a pause to let that sink in and show he meant it.

The concerto format is clearly Williams’ favorite. His first was for flute in 1969 and they’ve kept coming. The Second Violin Concerto is the 19th of his concert works for solo instrument and orchestra (not all are called concertos, but they all are). The concertos don’t sound like Williams’ film scores, but the medium suits him. He exults in the drama between a soloist and the orchestra, which he uses, as in his film scores, with great imagination and virtuosity.

Instruments, for Williams, are personalities, and a specific player has inspired each of the concertos, whether noted soloists or members of an orchestra he knows well (there is a clarinet concerto for former L.A. Phil principal clarinetist Michele Zukovsky well worth dusting off the shelf).

The concerto is also the ideal format for Williams to employ one of his most accomplished cinematic devices: A magically evocative scene setting. In the Horn Concerto, he does that with tolling bells. In the new violin concerto, it is the harp, which continues to interact with the solo violin throughout the concerto.

The Second Violin Concerto is in four movements, each with an allusive title, another evocative common trait in Williams’ concert pieces. In this case they are Prologue, Rounds, Dactyls and Epilogue. The tone throughout is elegiac, asare many of his concerted scores. The First Violin Concerto was written in 1996 in memory of his recently deceased wife. He pays serene, and timely, tribute to trees in three special concertos — “The Five Sacred Trees” (for bassoon), “TreeSong” (for violin) and “On Willows and Birches” (for harp).

There is nothing specific in the concerto for Mutter, although I wonder whether it on some level may pay tribute to André Previn, who was one of Williams’ oldest friends and died in 2019. Mutter was Previn’s last (of five) wife and final muse. Others will take up the Second Violin Concerto, but it is pure Mutter in a way that none of the other concertos written for her (such as the great one by Witold Lutoslawski) are.

As though beginning a cinematic fantasy, the harp seems to invite the violin into an imaginary realm. Mutter, whose tone is famously robust and fleshy, plays as though she is looking around in her new environment. What’s this? What’s that? Those are her quietly quizzical reactions.

The movements have their individual tones, but the overriding impression is not so much of form but of continual exploration, of Williams freeing himself from the confines for scoring a scene in a film. Mutter eagerly reveals a range of emotions that have an improvisatory quality, stopping more than once to share her feelings with the harp. The orchestra’s eloquent principal Emmanuel Ceysson and his red harp are placed in front of the orchestra. If his concert music can sometimes be uneven, the slow movements can be counted on to contain enchantment.

Much of this concerto is slow. It is the best of Williams. Or maybe it isn’t. The Cello Concert was revised last year and newly recorded by Ma, giving it new life. Clearly it is time to revive the other concertos. May those inspired by trees come first.

It will be worthwhile for Dudamel one day to conduct the concerto. Though a highly accomplished conductor, Williams is all business on the podium, the way he must be on the soundstage. There is a vibrancy of sound on the new recording that somehow didn’t quite come across in the concert hall. But his continuing vitality and sheer life-giving presence is something no one else could supply.

Dudamel, on the other hand, rocked the room with “Just Down Street,” and excerpts from “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars” and “E.T.,” as he had unforgettably at a Disney tribute four seasons ago, the live recording of which is the most thrilling Williams on record.

As for honors, Dudamel comes home with a two new ones himself. After opening his second season as music director of the Paris Opera with a performance of “Tosca” on Sept. 3, French President Emmanuel Macron made Dudamel an Officer in the French Order of Arts and Letters. Sunday, two days before the gala, the Glenn Gould Foundation bestowed upon Dudamel the $100,000 Glenn Gould Prize, as it had in 2008 to his mentor, José Antonio Abreu.

For some reason this year (supply chain?), no glitter resplendently cascaded down from the ceiling, a Disney gala specialty. But there was a lot to celebrate.


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