Reflections on the concerts performed by Maestro Williams with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on March 12 and 13, 2022
Rounds, Ripples and Renewal
by Maurizio Caschetto
Before leaving for Vienna, I offered a small reflection about the connections between an early work by a young John Williams from 1961 and his most recent performed composition, the Violin Concerto No. 2 for Anne-Sophie Mutter. It was my own little contribution to help putting the composer’s efforts outside his more famous film career into a larger context, enhancing how much these two worlds are part of the same musical persona. After attending the performances in Vienna on March 12 and 13 with the composer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, I returned home convinced that Williams’ unique musical path is something that we really need to cherish even more than we usually do, not because the composer needs more flattery or adulation than he already gets from the legions of his adoring fans, but because it’s really rare to see an artist still in a prime status of inspiration and incarnating Leonard Bernstein’s motto of the joy of music.
The main focus of these concerts was the performance of the Violin Concerto No.2, here again presented with the dedicatee soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter. If the historic European debut of 2020 saw the long-awaited recognition of Williams’ film compositions finally performed in the cradle of Western traditional classical music by one of the longest-standing European orchestras, the 2022 performances saw these same institutions accepting the composer as part of the established pantheon of greats also for his works written for the concert stage, thanks to a major piece that will probably become a true opus of reference in the violin repertoire in the decades to come. And all of this happened not as a posthumous tribute, but with John Williams himself on the podium, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with astonishing exuberance.
The mighty sound of the Viennese orchestra filled the Golden Hall of the Musikverein with “Sound The Bells!”, a juicy miniature full of contrapuntal delight for brass and percussion that acted as the perfect curtain raiser. After that, Anne-Sophie Mutter joined Maestro Williams on the stage for the European premiere of the Violin Concerto No.2. The work fits perfectly in the canon of Williams’ concert pieces for soloist and orchestra, as it’s a true exploration of the wide range of possibilities of the instrument and also of the qualities of the musician playing it. In the program notes, the composer didn’t offer much explanations about the overall piece except that, in his own views, represents Anne-Sophie Mutter and his unique style of playing, especially her unexpected penchant for jazz (revelaed by the exquisite playing on Williams’ violin arrangement of the love theme from Cinderella Liberty). But one cannot avoid hearing something deeper and more personal at work throughout the piece, which like other Williams’ concerti is characterized by abstract, wistful writing, sometimes interrupted by outbursts of symphonic modernism, and as far as possibile from any programmatic intent or descriptive atmosphere. It’s music of incredible expressive power that only rarely offers the listeners a respite of lyricism, but rather challenges their perception, asking for an active participation and be part of the journey together with the soloist and the orchestra.
“I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the violin itself—an instrument that is the unsurpassed product of the luthier’s art. With so much great music already written for the instrument, much of it recently for Anne-Sophie herself, I wondered what further contribution I could possibly make. But I took my inspiration and energy directly from this great artist herself.”John Williams
Mutter sounded really in her prime with the piece, which truly felt like an extension of her soul. Sometimes, it sounded like it was the violin playing her, offering an intimate potrait of the artist and her unique sound to the audience. In the first movement (“Prologue”), Williams and the Vienna Philharmonic almost danced and bounced around her, helping the soloist floating above incredibly complex textures and dark colors; “Rounds” is perhaps the most fascinating and musically rich movement, with the composer’s professed love for the vertical sonorities of Claude Thornhill in full display, upon which the violin offers yearning lyrical lines, including a melodic fragment that stirs long in the memory. The composer also wrote many extended solos for harp to the point that sometime it’s almost a double concerto (a sensation reinforced by the choice of having the harp positioned on the other side of the podium opposite the violin). The harp, magnificently played by Anneleen Lenaerts, dances and moves around the violin, sometimes with a devilish sense of irony (like the spectacular trio with violin and timpani in the third movement, “Dactyls”, probably the one where echoes of Williams’ film writing creep in during a few moments), but more often augmenting the wistfulness that pervades the concerto. It’s this sense of profound meditation that remains lingering after the performance, which a raptured audience followed with the utmost respect during the whole 35 minutes of duration.
The final movement, as written in the program notes, suggests healing and renewal, perhaps revealing a process of inner discovery for the composer himself. The lyricism that emerges from this last movement (“Epilogue”) is almost tortured and arduous, but in the end finds a warm, quiet resolution in A major, with the yearning theme heard in the second movement returning and hushing almost like a lullaby, performed with a true warm feeling by Anne-Sophie Mutter. It’s the end of a journey, giving the listener a sense of fulfillment and a wholly earned completeness. It wasn’t an easy task to follow up this truly impassioned performance with something else, but Williams and Mutter succeeded and graced the audience with an exquisite arrangement for violin and orchestra of the main theme from The Long Goodbye (1973), where the composer again could indulge again in having Anne-Sophie showcasing her feeling for jazz-like melodies.
The second half of the program presented selections from Williams’ most famous and beloved film scores: Superman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Enough to say that the mighty sound of the Vienna Philharmonic was the perfect fit for the symphonic exuberance of these well-known pieces. The “March” from Superman filled the Golden Hall with its resplendant writing for brass; the three pieces from Harry Potter were incredibly detailed and refined, shimmering with warmth and joy; the vibrant “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” from Indiana Jones was a match for the virtuosic quality of all the players (particularly woodwinds, with principal flute Karl-Heintz Schutz giving a truly excellent performance throughout the whole concert); and the “Throne Room” from Star Wars probably never sounded so right as it did between the walls of the Musikverein. An ecstatic audience was gifted with four encores: “Across the Stars” from Star Wars and “The Duel” from Tintin, both magnificently performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter, “Flying” from E.T. and the “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back, rounding out another historic performance. Listening to these powerhouse pieces in this hall, performed by this orchestra conducted by its composer was even more joyful than it was in 2020 and demonstrated with even more force (pardon the pun) the ripple effect that history always brings into the time we live in. The hall where Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss performed many of their masterpieces and where their spirit is still very much felt is now reverberating with the music of John Williams, which will inspire the genius composers of the future and carry on the tradition of great music.
No Reels Attached: John Williams’ concert music in Vienna
by Miguel Andrade
Full disclaimer: if you ask me what my favorite Williams score is, you won’t get Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Hook, Harry Potter or Superman. Neither will it be a lesser-known masterpiece like The Accidental Tourist or his scores for Robert Altman. The answer will be his Cello Concerto written in 1994. Or was… since last summer, I think the answer might be his new Violin Concerto, written for the amazing Anne-Sophie Mutter.
So, with that in mind, anyone can understand why, for me, being in Vienna in March 2022 was extra significant. For as much as I treasure Williams’ film scores, I’ve always found in his concert works something deeper, a direct door to the composer’s soul, if you will. And the Violin Concerto No. 2 follows that kind of personal connection with the composer already started in his previous concerti and larger orchestral pieces. And that’s why perhaps people have a more difficult time getting into this side of John Williams. As a dear and close friend put it after the Sunday concert: “I miss the images.” Very simply put and completely right. Afterall, music is abstract, just the ordering of sounds in such a way the ear finds the noise pleasant. With film music, we can be listening to the wildest atonal cacophony and accept it because we have the images who go with it. Suddenly it makes sense. Sometimes it is just a melody so cantabile, it’s impossible not to enjoy it. But when entering the domain of pure music, or music for the sake of music, we have only what the composer might give us as a guide map. And only if he chooses to, as Williams usually does. Still, that might not be enough, which is okay because, after all, all matters of one’s innermost thoughts are even more abstract and mysterious, sometimes to himself, than music.
What I think we get from these excursions into Williams’ concert hall repertoire are glimpses of his most deep self. For these he doesn’t rely on cinematic inspiration, he has to go deep down inside himself and talk, through his music, about his most personal passions and suffering, be it his beloved trees, a close musical friend or the passing of a loved one. It’s just fine to keep preferring his film output, as one should, afterall, listen to what brings him pleasure. Music, and Art, as much as it needs to be thought and discussed, needs to be a source of enjoyment. And since Williams gives the choice…
There is yet another layer to these Vienna 2022 concerts, making them so special. Back in 2020, there was electricity in the air. On one hand, everyone was too aware of the cancellations from the fall of 2018, and I surely feared any last minute (even last second) situation that could lead to new cancellations. But most importantly, finally performing in Vienna, of all places, was the acceptance of Williams in the pantheon. Vienna has always been seen as the birthplace of the western musical tradition, the place where all the great masters of the past were (at least at some point of their careers): Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, you name it. During my childhood, my fellow countryman, the composer António Vitorino de Almeida, would make sure to remember all the viewers of his weekly television show, how Vienna was the most musical of all cities, and of how any serious student of music, younger or older, should spend some time there. That’s the bottom line of what the concerts from two years ago meant: they were saying “John, you’re one of us now. It’s fine to have your film music here, in the most sacred and revered place for music.”
Yet, it was the film composer that was welcomed to Vienna. We were made sure of that everywhere, starting with the program (an earlier version included the Olympic Fanfare, but it eventually dropped in favor of “Flight to Neverland” from Hook), and going into every conceivable article, always presenting Williams as a cinema music maestro. Last year in Berlin, two shorter concert pieces were included, the always popular Olympic Fanfare and the beautiful Elegy. But these short form pieces don’t do much to change minds in this respect. But a 35-minute long one does. Even more when it has the kind of gravitas it possesses, a very personal excursion into Williams’ soul, and is passionately being championed by its dedicatee, with performances with three different orchestras in four different venues and two conductors (one being the composer himself) and more scheduled for the near future. That two of these took place in the very much sacred (and rightly so, as the spirits of the great ones were all hovering over us) is a clear shout to the world of music that John Williams is not a film composer (such a demeaning way to describe a composer…). John Williams is a composer of the highest caliber, worthy of all this recognition.
As a closing thought, this brings to my mind a statement from some journalist about “Air and Simple Gifts”, composed for the first inauguration of Barack Obama. It went something like this: for the inauguration they brought the best B-list composer they could find. I know this wasn’t a compliment. But if you come to think of things as divided by lists, then the A-list should be reserved for those who invented new ways to make music, like Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg and (just showing off now) Miles Davis. If so, being at the top of the B-list is quite the feat.
But at the end of the day, what counts is that you loved the music, and if like me, you did, these two concerts will be two more ingraining memories that will last for a lifetime.
And for that, dear Maestro, you have my never ending gratitude.
John Williams In Vienna
March 12-13, 2022, Golden Hall of the Musikverein
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
John Williams, conductor
. Sound the Bells!
. Violin Concerto No. 2, for Anne-Sophie Mutter
Encore: Theme from The Long Goodbye, for solo violin and orchestra
. “March” from Superman
Three Pieces from Harry Potter
. “Hedwig’s Theme”, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
. “Fawkes the Phoenix”, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
. “Harry’s Wondrous World”, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Two Pieces from Indiana Jones
. “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra”, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
. “Marion’s Theme”, from Raiders of the Lost Ark
Three Pieces from Star Wars
. “March of the Resistance”, from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
. “Princess Leia’s Theme”, from Star Wars: A New Hope
. “Throne Room and Finale”, from Star Wars: A New Hope
. “Across the Stars”, from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
. “The Duel”, from The Adventures of Tintin
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
. “Flying”, from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
. “The Imperial March”, from The Empire Strikes Back