‘Williams Makes a Stirring Debut with the BSO’ (1993)

The Boston Globe, page 30, August 30th, 1993
John Williams, guest conductor
At: Tanglewood Saturday evening

LENOX — Commentators were wondering why it took so long for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to ask John Williams to conduct. The answer is probably simple: It wasn’t anything the modest Pops conductor would have thought to ask for.
Conducting the Boston Symphony was a very big issue for Arthur Fielder, who came out of the BSO to lead the Pops. In a notorious incident, BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky canceled a Fiedler appearance with the orchestra after he had read, with horror, that Fiedler had conducted a Frank Sinatra concert. It was Charles Munch who granted Fiedler’s lifelong wish to conduct the BSO.
Williams may live in a glitzy suburb of music, but what he projects is integrity and seriousness of purpose.
Of course he could have had a career as a symphonic conductor if he had wanted it and been willing to spare the time. He is a thoroughly schooled musician, and there are any number of recorded concerto accompaniments by superstar conductors that would have been improved if they had been conducted by Williams instead. The list of BSO guest conductors of the last 13 years that Williams is better than would not be short.
For his BSO debut Saturday night Williams chose an interesting program, half-British, half-American. The British half presented music he has conducted at the Pops, Sir Michael Tippett’s “Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles,” and one of Williams’ favorite works, the Elgar Cello Concerto.
This was played by one of his favorite soloists, Yo-Yo Ma, who began with his usual authority and concentration, although a string snapped during the first impassioned recitative. Ma moved to borrow Martha Babcock’s cello, but just as the exchange began, Williams stopped the performance — it might have been risky business, since Babcock had just returned to the stage after replacing a broken string herself. (Babcock’s cello does know the concerto — she once played it memorably with Williams and the Pops.) Once these problems were solved, both men, and the orchestra, settled down to give a memorable performance. Ma’s playing had the spontaneity and speed of private thought and the aching immediacy of private emotion, all of it projected with a confiding ease; he drew us in. Williams conducted with rare sympathy for the soloist and the piece, and waved his baton in jubilation when the concerto was over — this had obviously been as profoundly personal and meaningful an experience for him as he and Ma had made it for everyone else.
Williams has said that he wants to use some of his “spare time” after he retires as Pops conductor to write a concerto for Ma; a collaboration like this one gives him a head start over some of the other composers who have written for Ma.
Tippett’s Suite is an attractive proposition, full of hope and confidence, lively tunes and noble ones. From a standpoint of 45 years later, it might entertain Sir Michael to write a sequel — he has learned how to write sleazy music, so he could add movements depicting Princess Diana, Camilla Parker- Bowes and the other characters in the lurid charade about the vanity of human wishes. Williams led a chipper performance, and trumpeter Tim Morrison’s intimate contribution to the lullaby reminded us of why Williams conceived two film scores with Morrison’s plangent sound in mind.
The American half was a celebration of Leonard Bernstein. Leone Buyse, who has served as acting principal flutist with musical distinction and personal grace for three seasons, marked her departure from the orchestra with a soulful and eloquent performance of Bernstein’s “Halil.” The performance also marked the last important solo by BSO principal viola Burton Fine, who played it poignantly.
“Halil,” which Bernstein described as a nocturne, is a narrative work depicting the life of an Israeli flutist who was killed in the Six-Day War — youthful idealism is represented by Gershwin syncopations, and the end of the piece becomes allegory. The solo flute seems silenced; the alto flute and piccolo (Fenwick Smith and Geralyn Coticone) carry on his song, and then, serene above the clash of armies, the soloist floats a single, sustained sourceless sound that serves as a benediction. The piece is emotional, and so was the occasion, and so was the compelling performance.
For the finale, Williams and the orchestra tore into Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” From the beginning the performance promised be finger-clickin’ good, and that’s how it turned out.