Luminous Tanglewood world premiere for John Williams’s new violin concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the BSO

Anne-Sophie Mutter performing John Williams’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (2021) with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed. © Courtesy of the BSO

Last weekend saw the high-point in the very special creative collaboration between the composer John Williams and the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Teaming up with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed, Mutter presented the audiences with the world premiere of Williams’s spellbinding Violin Concerto No. 2, with the composer on the podium, sharing the evening’s conducting duties with Music Director Andris Nelsons.

Rooted in their 2017 collaboration on Markings, an eight-minute piece for solo violin, string orchestra and harp, Mutter and Williams have subsequently worked on an extended series of reworkings of the composer’s film score extracts into virtuoso concertante items. Alongside the 2019 DG album presentation, these new arrangements were featured prominently on Williams’s concert programme with the Vienna Philharmonic in January 2020, with Mutter as soloist.

As the creative partnership progressed, the stage was eventually set for a new full-scale concerto for violin and orchestra. Over the past fifty years, Williams has written a notable body of concertante pieces for a multitude of solo instruments. Despite its title the new Violin Concerto is, in fact, Williams’s third major foray to the medium, preceded by not only the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1974-76/1998), but also TreeSong (2000), a three-movement piece written for Gil Shaham.

The new concerto is based on an unusual four-movement scheme, with a Prologue and an Epilogue framing the two whirling central movements, titled Rounds and Dactyls. In addition to the dazzlingly multi-faceted violin part, there are substantial solos written for several orchestral instruments as well, including an omnipresent concertante harp, seated in front of the strings, flute, and timpani. Scored for a large orchestra, the concerto thus incorporates various chamber ensembles into its constantly transforming fabric, giving rise to an invigorating sequence of musical narratives.

”I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the violin itself – an instrument that is he unsurpassed product of the luthier’s art”, Williams himself described the essence of the new concerto in his program note.

While there is no specific programme at play, the soloist and her musical partners come off as ravishing storytellers, taking the listener on a thrilling journey through various musical landscapes, joined together by thematic and textural bridges, crossing the borders of the concerto’s dream-like realms.

The Prologue opens with a solo harp motif, ringing over slowly moving string lines. The soloist picks up the musical line and develops it in quasi-improvisatory manner, in dialogue with the harp and the orchestra. As the movement proceeds, the solo line picks up speed and bravura, while the orchestral fabric grows in density and vehemence, displaying a fabulous array of colour. Following a captivating build-up, the solo violin lands on a luminous cadenza, leading to the coda and its swift concluding remarks.

A glimmering ostinato passage from harp, flutes and vibraphone sets the Rounds into magically swinging motion. The solo violin enters, establishing the main motif and reworking it into mesmerizing colours in collaboration with the sublime orchestral fabric. Paying homage to both the sounding luminescence of Claude Debussy as well as the ingenious sonorities of the Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborations, Rounds is shrouded in brilliantly moonlit night-music.

Ensuing attacca, the third movement, Dactyls, is a scherzo par excellence, reminiscent of some of the composer’s most extraordinary film scores. Edgy and vehement, the music plunges into an ingenious trio for violin, harp and timpani, giving rise to one of the concerto’s most captivating highlights. Quirky and angular, the music possesses enormous inner drive, reminiscent of the swashbucklers of the Hollywood Golden Age.

The music cools down suddenly, and the harp introduces the concluding Epilogue, the concerto’s reflective slow movement. The contemplative first section shares its musical sphere with some of Williams’s more introspective music for the final Star Wars trilogy, whereas the middle section features another marvellous trio, this time for violin, cello and harp, which leads to the concerto’s meditative conclusion in A major.

A thoroughly captivating world premiere performance, from the very first string lines to the solo violin’s closing note, the Violin Concerto No. 2 was given a spectacular outing by Mutter, Williams and the BSO at Tanglewood. The solo part came off with brilliance and sensitivity, with impressive detail throughout. The orchestra’s contribution was no less marvellous, including great many memorable solo iterations, most notably from the harpist Jessica Zhou.

Williams’s down-to-earth conducting, with all the experience gained from life’s work in the studio and on the podium, was ever seamlessly attuned to Mutter’s take on the violin part, resulting in admirable collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra. Upon its first performance, the concerto, one of Williams’s most substantial works for the concert hall, was well served indeed.

As an encore for their enthusiastic first-night audiences, Mutter and Williams returned the stage to perform Across the Stars (2002/2019) from Star Wars Episode II, in a version arranged for violin and orchestra by the composer. Perfectly aligned with the spirit of the concerto’s closing, the five-minute piece was given a touchingly reflective outing at the Music Shed.

Conducted by Nelsons, the evening was set in vibrant motion with Jessie Montgomery’s energetic Starbust (2012). Scored for string orchestra, the three-minute musical tableau stems from a core pulse, with melodic lines, or fragments, woven together into ever-transforming fabric of rhythmic colours.

As the musical motifs take shape, Montgomery makes fine distinctions between spaced-out pizzicati and dotted arco passages within the new-born melodic lines. Generated within one instrumental group, the musical lines are gradually passed over to others, giving rise to brief tutti passages, which, in turn, dissolve back into the ground pulse, from which new motifs are generated.  

True to its title, referring to newly-formed star clusters within a galaxy, the BSO performance of Starbust conveyed the sense of a new beginning, befittingly for our era of reopenings. With Nelsons, the invigorating string textures were laid out in marvellously translucent manner, driven by a rousing rhythmic impetus.

Following the Williams concerto, the second half of the evening paired two best-loved works from Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky into a dazzling series of captivating orchestral imagery.

Scored for trumpet, English horn and strings, Copland’s Quiet City (1940) is one of those inherently cinematic pieces, which convey powerful imagery in their sounding guises. The most evocative reflection of an early-morning cityscape, the score opens pianissimo on sustained strings, joined by solo English horn from the fifth bar on.

The solo trumpet enters nine bars later, with a signal-like motive, marked nervous, mysterious. In the course of the ten minute piece, the two soloists exchange musical material in gracious contemplation, echoed by the sublime string textures. As the music pans down to quiet highways and byways of its imaginary cityscape, the listener is transported in time and space by Copland’s luminous instrumental writing.

Performed with aptly subtle sonic dramaturgy by the members of the BSO and Nelsons, the musical vistas were unraveled in fine detail, with the solo parts, luminously performed by Robert Sheena on the English horn and Thomas Rolfs on the trumpet, merging together into one spellbinding narrative.

Performing on the stage front, the soloist were beautifully balanced with the sing ensemble by Nelsons, resulting in a wonderfully atmospheric outing, perhaps gaining new meanings from our shared lockdown memories.

The evening concluded with Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his iconic ballet score The Firebird (1909-10), rescored for a smaller orchestra by the composer, in order to to make the lush orchestration of the original to better meet the post-WWI and post-Spanish-flu realities of concert performances. While the 1919 suite may not be my preferred choice to present the music from The Firebird, I must admit that Nelsons and the BSO were the most persuasive advocates of the score at the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

From the very opening bars of the dark-hued Introduction, where the music comes into being in the uttermost depths of the orchestra, one was quite enthralled by the gorgeous sonic magic of the BSO, further enhanced with each musical number.

Following the initial build-up, the music segues to the lively appearance of the Firebird, followed by some ingenious variations of the original motif. As Stravinsky’s orchestral colours emerged in their full Technicolor, the music was reflectively paced by Nelsons, with the orchestra displaying its full sonic scale in perfect balance.

The Princesses’ Round was abundant with fairy-tale seduction, as the BSO and Nelsons committed themselves to its splendid musical narratives with sonorities of mysterious beauty and longing. In similar vein, the orchestra and the conductor were fully engaged in the ensuing Infernal Dance of King Kashchei, where all hell breaks loose as Stravinsky pulls out all stops and unleashes his symphonic phantasmagoria par excellence.

Another stark contrast in mood follows, as the orchestra enters into the realm of frozen time in the grippingly static Lullaby, one of the most cinematic passages in The Firebird. With Nelsons, the orchestra conveyed Stravinsky’s surreal dream-world with astonishing mystery, before resolving into the solemn festivity of the Final Hymn.

Astoundingly built, the Finale was set alight with a soaring horn solo, followed by an orchestral zenith with its shifting meters. A joyous performance, The Firebird brought the one-of-a-kind evening to its worthy close.

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons, conductor (Montgomery, Copland, Stravinsky)

John Williams, conductor (Williams)

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin

Robert Sheena, English horn

Thomas Rolfs, trumpet

Jessie Montgomery: Starbust (2012) for string orchestra

John Williams: Violin Concerto No. 2 (2021), world premiere

Aaron Copland: Quiet City (1940) for trumpet, English horn and strings

Igor Stravinsky: Suite from ”The Firebird” (1909-10/1919)

Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, MA

Saturday 24 July, 8pm (DG Stage steam Sunday 25 July, 8pm UCT)

© Jari Kallio

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