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Williams scores big with dazzling showcase at Tanglewood Film Night

LENOX -- John Williams has lengthened the list of the most popular Tanglewood traditions by creating Film Night, a celebration of the movies and of the composers who wrote for their soundtracks.

This year's edition, Saturday night, brought the largest crowd of the summer so far, 17,043 film fans, including his principal collaborator since 1974's ``The Sugarland Express," Steven Spielberg. Williams asked Spielberg to stand up in the audience, and at the end even brought him onstage -- the filmmaker, wearing a scally cap and jeans, bounded out to receive a welcome to rival Williams's own earlier in the evening.

Williams has usually chosen to focus on the film music of others, but this time he wrote all but one piece himself. But the focus was on three contrasting scores, ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind," ``Memoirs of a Geisha," and a new ``Grand Suite" from the ``Star Wars" saga, with a spoken connective narration delivered by a rather frail-looking but still sonorous James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader -- Film Night is not a low-budget event.

The ``Star Wars" sequence opened with that one piece not by Williams -- the familiar 20th-Century Fox fanfare by his mentor, Alfred Newman. Then Jones spoke of how the first unheralded film of the series opened in only 32 theatres back in 1977.

Editor Susan Dangel had ingeniously recut a number of clips from the six films to accompany the music; they were projected on huge screens and Williams synchronized the live performance of the music to the images with dazzling, offhanded aplomb.

It was interesting to hear the music and see the clips in the order of the story rather than in the order of the films' release. In a sense, Williams composed backward, creating themes for the last trilogy that sound as if they generated those for the first three films -- quite a virtuoso feat. It was also interesting that the music, in live performance, still sounds fresh, while some of the earliest clips now look as dated in hairstyle and the technology of special effects as the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s that were director George Lucas's inspiration.

And with a few notable exceptions, the acting is on the Flash Gordon level -- it is Williams's solo flute that makes Princess Leia magical, romantic, and heroic, not the urban American delivery of Carrie Fisher.

Some of the excerpts from ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind" represent Williams in his most advanced contemporary mode. If certain passages had been written by the late Gyorgy Ligeti, say, they would be studied in orchestration classes around the world. Williams may not have composed them in this style if Ligeti had not been there first, but his mastery of orchestration is his own -- those amazing upward glissandos in the strings that sound like a ghost startled by the brass -- and the music sounds at least as much like Williams as it does like Ligeti.

There was also a substantial suite from ``Memoirs of a Geisha," one of Williams's most beautiful, haunting, and personal scores. Williams led an abbreviated version of this suite -- about half of it -- last summer at the Pops, but the music benefits from being heard in this more extensive context. Two of the principal players on the soundtrack came on to play the music live -- cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Masakazu Yoshizawa, who plays the Japanese traditional flute, the shakuhachi. Pops concertmaster Tamara Smirnova substituted for the soundtrack's Itzhak Perlman and did not suffer from comparison. Ma played plangently and soulfully, bending his pitches to match the atmospheric shakuhachi.

Film Night might have been called, Hollywood-style, ``Three Faces of John" -- not ``The Three Faces of John," because Williams has written more than 100 film scores. Encore time brought another face, wreathed in smiles: A soaring theme unfurled while a boy named Elliott and his extraterrestrial friend flew on a bicycle across the moon.

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