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Williams celebration has a surprise ending

LENOX -- The celebrations of John Williams's 25-year association with the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops closed Saturday night with a dressed-up reprise of his wonderful "Evening at Pops" tribute to two film composers: his mentor, Bernard Herrmann, and his friend, Henry Mancini.

This time there were two special guests, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Scorsese hosted the Herrmann half of the program -- Herrmann's final film score was for Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." The director recalled telephoning Herrmann to ask him to participate. The famously gruff composer replied: "I don't do pictures about cabbies." But he did, writing in a jazz style and emphasizing the brass. Scorsese wanted one special sonic effect; Herrmann obliged, but it wasn't quite what Scorsese had in mind. "Play it backwards," Herrmann said as he left the room, and he was exactly right. He died later that night.

The musical performances emphasized the moody, melancholy characteristics of Herrmann's work; Herrmann was an extraordinary musician, entirely familiar with the entire classical literature and with the avant-garde of his day. Saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky contributed a piercingly sad solo to the "Taxi Driver" sequence.

The new element in the Mancini segment was the stylish contribution of the high-school-age chorus from the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (baritone Ron Raines and the composer's talented singing daughter, Monica Mancini, were welcome returnees from the Boston edition). Spielberg received an overwhelming ovation, but repeatedly deflected applause toward Williams, saying, "John Williams will always be the composer for my pictures." (He also presented Williams with a surprise announcement: A large tree will be planted in his honor at Tanglewood, alongside trees dedicated to Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.)

Williams received the greatest ovation of the evening and, typically modest, thanked Ozawa and Tanglewood for all their support. Williams has been good for the orchestra, and the orchestra has helped Williams succeed in his objective: to establish the worth of film music beyond its use in the movie house.

Friday night's concert brought a radiant Deborah Voigt, rapturously applauded for her gorgeous performance of Wagner's "Wesendonck" Songs; for her, singing this well is the best revenge for the flak she has taken for her weight. Debut conductor Gianandrea Noseda micromanaged the accompaniments but didn't get in the soprano's way. Noseda's views on the prelude from Wagner's "Lohengrin" and a suite from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" were of interest, but he did get in his own way with a florid and melodramatic podium technique that was more distracting than informative.

On Sunday afternoon Robert Spano led pianist André Watts in a stimulating performance of the most popular American romantic piano concerto, Edward MacDowell's Second. Watts sometimes overplayed his hands in the climaxes, with harsh-sounding results, but most of the time he offered warmth of tone and feeling.

Spano is concurrently director of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. The BSO's contribution to that was Bernard Rands's ". . . body and shadow . . ." (which was premiered by the orchestra in 1989 and widely played since, but by others).

The piece, inspired by a poem by Samuel Beckett, is in two contrasting movements, one dramatic and angular, the other a slow movement of Brucknerian span and nobility.

Many of the principal players for whom Rands conceived solos have retired, but successors brought their own qualities to the music; Timothy Genis led off with a fiery tympani solo.

The program closed with an enchanting performance of Act 2 of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet, the part of the score that has most of the sugarplums in it. The orchestra played it gorgeously. Spano, sometimes the most driven and intense of contemporary conductors, never relaxed his vigilance, but he has learned to smile.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops
Gianandrea Noseda, John Williams, and Robert Spano, conductors
At: Tanglewood, last weekend

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