John Williams congratulates violist Cathy Basrak following her performance of the world premiere of Williams' Concerto for viola and orchestra with the Boston Pops. At the timpani, Basrak's husband Tim Genis applauds for his wife. (Michael J. Lutch)
The music of composer John Williams resembles the filmography of Tom Hanks, full of drama and Oscar-ready uplift. They've both been around long enough, and done enough movies, that you pretty much know what you're going to get from them, whether it's an alien adventure or a World War II ordeal.
But Williams surprised with his world premiere Concerto for Viola and Orchestra last night. Not a soundtrack but a musical gift to Pops principal violist Cathy Basrak, it was a challenging piece quite unlike his familiar big-screen emotional narratives.
The first movement offered Basrak taxing, unaccompanied passages all over the strings, with little bursts that touched on dissonance and long, still notes that hung in the air. In short, a showpiece.
The second movement featured Basrak trading phrases in a duel with her husband, principal timpanist Timothy Genis, which led Williams to dub the movement the "Family Argument" and drew chuckles from the audience. The third movement brought in principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot to pluck the strings behind Basrak in a dreamy sequence.
The rest of the night featured movie music, mostly by Williams, of varying interest. The opening "Hooray for Hollywood" got a smart reading by Williams and the orchestra that found touches of Copland-esque subtlety in that well-worn melody. And Williams's Suite from Jane Eyre gave the strings a chance to shine, especially in the second movement, when the conductor emeritus held up a finger to the violins to keep them sawing away while he leaned in the other direction to give close attention to the cellos. On the other hand, Korngold's March from The Adventures of Robin Hood felt like a trailer for emotions we'd be having later.
Deadline forced our exit before the final set, featuring music from "Superman," "Far and Away," and more. I can't say I looked forward to that as much as our press table neighbors David and Sylvain did. The movie-music aficionados came from France to attend two Film Night programs this week. Still, it was hard not to wish that Williams would write more works like the concerto.