With all of the time the Philadelphia Orchestra has spent in the company of John Williams and his music in the last few years, maybe you think you've heard it all. Not yet.
Surprising corners of his compositional personality emerged Wednesday night at Verizon Hall in a program whose second half was conducted by Williams himself. In the theme from Sabrina, the 1995 remake of the Billy Wilder film, the atmosphere lifted off into a gauzy waltz of longing.
The sweetness was no trick, as it is not for any composer. Concertmaster David Kim took the extended violin solo. What was striking, though, was the deft control over mood. Williams in this music makes a dozen choices to avoid cliche, and after a middle section of some harmonic intrigue, he sets us down into a realm somewhere between the dance floor and a sky lush with stars.
Most listeners know Williams as sound-cartographer of a star system considerably more bellicose, of course, and this evening did not pass without a big bang or two, ending with Star Wars excerpts.
The concert, a one-night-only benefit for the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians' pension fund, would seem to be another instance of Williams' excellent ear for timing. This year's choice of a Pulitzer winner for music has been hailed as a breakthrough moment for rap or, perhaps, pop. Another potentially fascinating barrier it breaches is that of commercial music.
Wednesday's concert divorced Williams' film scores from their visuals and placed them firmly in the art house. If the Pulitzer judges wanted to open up to a wider range of American music, as Slate reported the program indicated in 1996 that it did, the passing of two decades without awarding the prize to Williams says more about the judges than the master of this distinctly American art form.
Rather than using film clips, Williams set up each piece by talking through the action. He needn't have bothered. The music says it all.
The concert was almost exclusively film music, but the first half, conducted by Stéphane Denève, slipped in a bit of mediocre regionalism with Williams' A Hymn to New England. With Carol Jantsch as virtuoso soloist, his Tuba Concerto got its first Philadelphia Orchestra performance.
That Williams is skilled there can be no question. He gives the tuba wide berth, freeing up the air for low notes by giving it ensemble contrast — string pizzicatos, a lovely English horn solo (played by Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia) and extended dialogues with soprano instruments. In the carefree allegro section, tuba races against chattering trumpets.
Elsewhere, tuba exchanges quick-silver gestures with the flute, generally considered the more gymnastic instrument — but the joke here being that for Jantsch it seemed like no work at all. A pairing of tuba and harp was an equally expectation-defying stroke. The music itself is emotionally direct and lovely, if not especially novel.
This is not meant as faint praise. It's just that, by contrast, Williams is a superlative film composer. No one of his generation has knit together emotion with the history of orchestral music the way he has. All of which makes this refined, powerful orchestra a natural partner.
Music from the film JFK (led by Denève) might seem like an odd choice for a celebratory concert, but the emphasis on strings in the "Arlington" section was equal parts Barber Adagio and Shostakovich, two strong suits for this ensemble.
The genius of using reedy woodwinds for music about a broom, in "Nimbus 2000," might not have come across as brilliantly with another orchestra, one that might have missed hearing it as latter-day Tchaikovsky. Silvery percussion worthy of Korngold drifts upon A Child's Tale: Suite From the BFG like the very thing that nourishes tenderness and hope.
Williams captures liberation and the feeling of being part of something larger. The audience felt it. With the first notes of music from Star Wars, listeners physically rustled to life in their seats. To be in the company of something both bigger and beneficent is a rare commodity, and you are grateful for it even just for a few bars at a time.