John Williams has been Hollywood’s foremost composer for more than half a century. He is the guardian of the Golden Age flame of rising greatness and indelible melodies, he is the musical mind behind the two-tone terror of “Jaws”, the operatic fanfare of “Star Wars” and the mischievous charm of “Harry Potter” – along with the sounds of some 50 other Academy Award-nominated music.
Williams has also built up a solid career in the concert hall over the years. But while his soundtracks are the stuff of cultural immortality, his symphonic works have never gained a foothold in the repertoire. Even now that his music has been programmed by the legendary ensembles of Vienna and Berlin, it is more likely to be “ET” than his “Essay for Strings”.
Williams’ concert works are often skilful, but less imaginative than his film scores. And some—particularly pièces d’occasion like the mischievous “Soundings,” written for the 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall opening in Los Angeles—are understandably obscure. At his best, however, he is a lively tone painter with a masterful mastery of orchestration and form. Here are five examples.
Concerto for violin and orchestra (1976)
At times it is reminiscent of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and, as it is written in the wake of loss – to Williams, the sudden death of his wife – this entry into the genre moves fluidly, and often unpredictably, in and out of lyricism, fleetingness and breathlessness. . Premiered in 1981 by Mark Peskanov, it found a wider audience when it was recorded three decades later by Gil Shaham and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with whom Williams has a long association.
‘The Five Sacred Trees’ (1993)
More or less a bassoon concerto, this commission for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic opens with a long solo that evokes the first (and wisest) of five trees from Celtic mythology. The movements that follow are tree portraits in music: a puck-like, dancing duet for bassoon and violin; a mysterious nocturne; curlicue sentences stifled in fragments; and brood patiently.
Cello Concerto (1994)
Williams composed this for Yo-Yo Ma to dedicate Seiji Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood. (Of Williams’ works for the instrument, it has aged better than Three Pieces for Solo Cello, a 2001 meditation on black history with titles like “Pickin'”). to reflect different angles of Ma’s artistry: as a heroic virtuoso, a deft genre-hopper and, in the ruminating finale, an expressive communicator.
Horn Concerto (2003)
Dale Clevenger — the hornmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for whom this was written and who died last month — once told an interviewer that he had asked Williams for a “audience-friendly” concerto. The result is difficult to play and yet often warm, while it is also almost programmatic in the sequence of tonal poems bordering on the Coplandesque in the third movement Pastorale.
If this atmospheric and discursive work seems like the beginning of something bigger, then it is. Written at the behest of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and drawing on her trademark eloquence, it was the first in a series of collaborations that have since recorded an album of Williams’ film scores arranged for her and orchestra, as well as his Second Violin Concerto, which premiered last year and is coming to Carnegie Hall in April.