John Williams at 80
Tanglewood celebrates a milestone with young talent
At Tanglewood, on August 18, some of the biggest names in classical music—including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Jessye Norman, and violinist Gil Shaham—will share the stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and a hand-picked group of younger professional musicians for a common purpose: to celebrate the 80th birthday of renowned composer and conductor John Williams.
The birthday-celebration concert at 8:30 p.m. and the prelude concert at six will both showcase “the breadth of John’s compositional output,” says Tony Fogg, artistic administrator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The two concerts will show the many dimensions of Williams’s work, Fogg explains, including not only music from several of his best-known film scores but also some of his concert pieces and chamber music.
Keith Lockhart, Williams’s successor since 1995 as conductor of the Boston Pops, explains by phone from his home in Brookline, “Some of his more serious orchestral compositions, specifically the concerti he wrote for different soloists with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will be featured in a kind of one-movement-each version—one movement of the tuba concerto, one movement of the violin concerto, et cetera.”
Williams also has written many symphonies and pieces of chamber music. But it’s his film scores, including those for Star Wars, Jaws, Harry Potter, and Schindler’s List, that have secured his place as one of the great modern-American composers. Williams has won five Academy Awards for his film scores and been nominated for 47, making him the second most-nominated person, after Walt Disney.
During Williams’s stay in Tanglewood this month, he will no doubt brush shoulders with many of the 150 young people here for summer fellowships with the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC), which the Tanglewood website calls “the training grounds for the musicians of tomorrow.”
According to TMC director Ellen Highstein, the program receives up to 1,500 applications for the summer fellowships each year. “It’s a real winnowing down, a kind of crème-de-la-crème situation,” she says. Most of the TMC fellows are in their mid-twenties; many have already embarked on successful professional careers. One hundred of the fellows are instrumentalists and make up the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; the other 50 are pianists, singers, composers, conductors, or fit into a few other small categories, including audio engineering.
What is it that makes the TMC so different from any other program?
The main thing, Highstein says, is that it’s the only program in the world that is part of a major symphony orchestra. “We’re kind of like Brigadoon,” she says. “We burst into existence during the summer, and then we close up shop. But during that time, the participants are taking part in the life of one of the world’s great orchestras. And all the great artists that come through, including John and Keith—there’s nothing like it anywhere else.”
Sharon Harms, 29, from Pueblo, Colorado, is one of seven sopranos studying at the Tanglewood Music Center this summer. On a recent hot summer’s day at Tanglewood, she says that this is her second year as a TMC fellow and that she was “thrilled” to be asked back again.
The sopranos will be singing John Williams’s song cycle, 7 for Luck, with each taking one movement. “It’s nice because no one feels left out,” Harms says, laughing. They will be performing at the 6 p.m. prelude concert in Ozawa Hall.
Mike Roylance is principal tuba player for both the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops. He will be playing the third movement from the Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra that Williams wrote in 1985 for Roylance’s BSO predecessor, Chester Schmitz. Roylance calls Williams one of the first composers ever to “grasp the capabilities of a brass instrument” and to bring out their more lyrical qualities.
He’s played the concerto many times, Roylance says, but always with a piano reduction. “I’ve never played it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and certainly not with John Williams in one of the front rows, watching.”