Williams and Connick tape Evening at Pops
John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra
May 14, 2001, Symphony Hall, Boston
by Brian A. Ritter

For last night’s Evening at Pops taping session, Symphony Hall in Boston was transformed into a Hollywood soundstage as John Williams demonstrated his genius for writing and conducting music for film. A large movie screen hung over the orchestra for much of the concert, projecting memorable sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gold Diggers, The Unfinished Journey and Orchestra Wives, as Williams and the orchestra supplied the music. The audience was given a fascinating and intimate look into the difficult art of matching music and film.

Williams began the concert with a new arrangement of his theme from The Patriot containing a stunning brass fanfare at the beginning, a few expanded sections for fifes and drums, and a bombastic concert ending. He conducted it with passion, keeping the tempos moving forward, and often beckoning more sound from the strings with dramatic arm motions.

Williams brought back his music from Celebration 2000: The Unfinished Journey again this season, but this time including Steven Spielberg’s film in the performance. Spielberg’s imagery is a stirring excursion through the twentieth century, revealing the achievements and the disappointments of American life, the best and worst of our shared heritage. In addition to photographs and newsreel footage, the film assembles some great poetic moments, and in this performance, narrators Attallah Shabazz and Paul Winfield gave poignant readings of words by Abraham Lincoln, John Magee Jr., Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky and Maya Angelou, among others.

The essence of Williams’ genius in Celebration 2000 is his ability to capture the emotion behind the images and texts. He is able to pull at our heartstrings with every new bar, and reveals the true meaning behind Spielberg’s film. The orchestra gave a dedicated performance and perfectly followed Williams’ cues. The climaxes and the subtleties in the music came at just the right moments and created a powerful and moving experience.

Harry Connick Jr. and his trio joined Williams and the Pops for the middle third of the concert. He opened with his own “Nowhere with Love” accompanied by the Pops playing his own orchestrations. Connick’s performance was filled with charm, and he sang Irving Berlin’s ballad “Change Partners” with Sinatra-style elegance, heightened by a smooth saxophone solo from trio member Ned Goold. Connick’s engaging personality came through in “Come by Me” as he soulfully played piano like he was down home in New Orleans. Together Connick and Williams resurrected “The Long Goodbye,” with a lyric by Johnny Mercer and music by Williams himself, from Williams’ score for Robert Altman’s film of the same name. Connick’s singing was purposeful and dramatic; Williams’ orchestration brought drama too, but in a moody, dark, contemplative way. The song was a highlight for this evening’s collaboration and it was a pleasure to hear some early Williams in addition to his more recent works. “Do I have time to do one more?” shouted Connick as the applause died. The response was unanimous, and he concluded his set with an impressive rendition of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” on solo piano.

The Boston Pops love tributes, and the final portion of the concert featured several. First, Williams conducted a short montage from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The famous opening bars of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra rang through the hall as Williams summoned some wonderfully powerful playing from the brass. On the screen was Kubrick’s vision of the beginning of time with an enormous ape smashing bones to Strauss’ music. The scene then quickly flashed forward thousands of years to outer space as Williams and the orchestra gave a joyous performance of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, accompanying several space stations floating through the darkness.

Next came a tribute to songwriter Harry Warren with an impressive film montage from old Busby Berkley films of the 1930s. Ginger Rogers and many other beautiful women could be seen dancing on the wings of an airplane, playing neon-lit violins and white pianos, and making large floral patterns with enormous feathers. It was amazing how Williams kept everything together. The cues needed to be precise to accent every dance movement and scene change; an off-stage women’s chorus added to the effect, as did two pianists at a large white piano in the foreground of the stage; everyone needed to enter on time and Williams made sure they did.

A Nicholas Brothers tribute followed, featuring an athletic dance sequence to Harry Warren’s “I’ve Got a Gal In Kalamazoo.” The Pops played along with the Glen Miller Orchestra featured in the film and nailed the musical punches to the many Nicholas Brothers kicks and jumps. Williams explained at the beginning that all music and sound effects are added after a film is complete; so they had a particular challenge in this film clip as the orchestra had to not only match all the dance moves, but also recreate the sounds of the Nicholas Brothers tap dancing; two Pops percussionists made it look all too easy.

A wild Don Sebesky arrangement of Harry Warren’s “42nd Street,” complete with wailing clarinet, officially closed the concert. Answering the applause, Williams returned to the podium to conduct his gentle and mystical “Yoda’s Theme” as an encore. At its conclusion Williams crossed his fingers to the orchestra, forming a “T,” and with that the familiar “Flying Theme” from E.T. filled Symphony Hall. It ended a fine performance in classic Williams style.

John Williams’ Evening at Pops episode will air July 5 in Boston on WGBH; check local listings for more details. This particular taping session proved to be fairly tedious at some points. The producers had Williams and the orchestra redo the Busby Berkeley sequences several times (twice during the concert and once after the encores); the opening tableau from Celebration 2000 also had to be redone for taping purposes, spoiling some of its emotional impact at the conclusion. At any rate, all this will make for a wonderful TV show, and it was certainly exciting to watch Williams ad lib between takes, often joking, “Ah, the magic of television,” and expressing his regret for not having prepared any Johnny Carson material for the evening. The buzz on the way out of the hall was how calm Williams remained during all the retake requests. John Williams is a professional and a gentleman, of course it didn’t faze him in the least.