‘Weekend Starts on High Note at Pops’ (1998)

THE BOSTON POPS, John Williams, conductor laureate at Symphony Hall last night
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, page C5, May 23rd, 1998
John Williams made his seasonal return to the Boston Pops last night, and it was clear that the conductor laureate has not outworn his welcome. The audience was happy to see him, and once again Williams went about everything he did with a thoughtful seriousness of purpose that made the fun seem somehow substantial. Last night’s program was connected to two works-in-progress, the song-cycle “Seven for Luck,” and an album he is recording with violinist Joshua Bell. Some of the program will be taped for television’s “Evening at Pops” tonight.
“Seven for Luck” was composed as a commission for Kathleen Battle to sing at the Kennedy Center, but the soprano passed on it; lucky Cynthia Haymon sang three of the songs last night and will sing the premiere of the entire cycle at Tanglewood this summer. A few years back Williams’s friend Andre Previn composed an orchestral cycle on new texts by Toni Morrison, “Honey and Rue”; Williams followed suit by choosing seven poems by former poet laureate Rita Dove. The three heard last night were “Song” (about youth, “when the stars rhymed”), “Chocolate” (about chocolate — and falling in love), and “Black on a Saturday Night” (which is about dancing, and attitude, “. . . there is only / Saturday night, and we are in it”). Williams’s music is charged with African-American rhythms and orchestral colors, and the vocal line clings to the soprano voice like a silk dress to a runway model. Haymon sang with involvement and fervor, but in the middle and lower registers she had trouble getting the words and even tone across; compensation came in the Saturday night glamour of her high notes.
The chorus, “Dry Your Tears, Afrika,” comes from Williams’s music for Steven Spielberg’s film “Amistad,” one of his finest scores. The song speaks, in the African language Mende, of hope and homecoming; both the melody and the pulsing rhythmical accompaniment are haunting. The children of the GNE Children’s Chorus sang it sweetly and truly. They remained onstage for a group of spirituals arranged by the Pops’ favorite Gospel Night conductor, Charles Floyd, who put “Angels Watching Over Me” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into counterpoint, and sent Haymon’s soprano soaring to the heavens at the end of “This Little Light of Mine.” The children hung in there, not always exactly in place.
Bell offered a tribute to Gershwin, a new fantasy on themes from “Porgy and Bess” arranged by Alexander Courage. This listener found too much routine medley and not enough fantasy in this potpourri, which is merely a medley awkwardly stitched together — the transitions between numbers are often clumsy (the best ones came in solo violin cadenzas, the worst were orchestral), and the tunes simply alternated fast and slow rather than following the order of the opera or the emotional progress of the story. Jascha Heifetz’s famous “Porgy” transcriptions remained within a Gershwin style; here we kept leaving Catfish Row for the alien world of the Russian violin concerto. The manner worked most effectively in showoff arrangements of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon.” The tragedy of “My Man’s Gone Now” could not register in this listen-to-me context, although Bell did manage to make “Summertime” affecting through eloquent inflections of line. You heard the words when he played, which ought to be a lesson to all those automatons who go around playing Sarasate’s “Carmen” Fantasy without a clue as to how the music goes. Thinking of the witty lyric to Bell’s encore, “Embraceable You” did no favors to the dreadful, smoochy arrangement.
Another ghastly arrangement followed, the love theme from “Titanic,” drowned in some of the most famous bits of Debussy and Ravel. Williams could keep his dignity intact even in this, but one knew why The New Yorker’s critic found himself rooting for the iceberg.