Moments that remind me what is possible

Jun 5, 2013

Some days are ordinary.  Others are extraordinary.  Today, the Baltimore Symphony had the huge honor and pleasure of working with the legendary film composer, John Williams.  Our music director, Marin Alsop, is friendly with Mr. Williams, and has been talking with him about coming to conduct the BSO for years.   But it was apparently the fact that her son is an avid fan of Williams’ compositions that finally tipped the scales, and so the maestro came to Baltimore for a one-concert only, sold-out show featuring some of his greatest film scores.  Ms. Alsop deserves our congratulations and our thanks for making this event happen.

The first words out of his mouth in rehearsal were, “Thank you for having me.” He was humble, warm, and gracious.  I have often heard it said that musicians’ tempi slow down as they grow older.  Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Bach Goldberg Variations certainly support this theory, his 1981 recording being about half the speed of his 1955 debut recording of the same work.  A related notion is that we tend to play in the same tempo as our heartbeat (which, by the way, explains why we rush when we feel nervous).  Working with Mr. Williams, who celebrated his 81st birthday on February 9 of this year, blows this theory out of the water for me.   The way Williams sculpts a lyrical phrase is by letting it go, letting it soar, encouraging it to surge forward to an astonishing degree, and then creating moments of tenderness and poignancy by lingering on or just before the climax of the phrase.  As with a sailboat on the open water, the wind can pick up at any moment and send the boat skidding, but can just as quickly die, leaving the sailor to appreciate and savor the peace.  Williams’ freedom is natural and refreshing, and his willingness to let us find our own way to his sense of phrasing communicates a sense of trust from the podium that brings out the best in the players.  Holding something too tightly often stifles, whereas in many situations, letting go creates space for joy.

Tonight’s concert was the closest to a rock concert as any I’ve ever experienced.  The crowd literally erupted into applause and a standing ovation as soon as Mr. Williams’ foot was visible through the open door.  The BSO was in absolutely top form.  The sound was cohesive and warm, at times powerful and brilliant, and the solos from various players throughout the evening were stunning. Moreover, there was a sense of collective purpose and joy on the stage that emanated from the goodwill at the podium and spread to everyone within earshot.  And that joy had very little to do with the fact that John Williams is a Hollywood superstar, and everything to do with the fact that he is a musician of integrity and inspiration.

Click here to read Baltimore Sun columnist Tim Smith’s account of the event.

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Lura Johnson