Five years ago, supernaturally prolific film composer John Williams made his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut, conducting a program of his music that had the audience responding with rock concert-level roars. On Wednesday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a second close encounter of the Williams kind set off the same kinetic reaction.
The packed venue showered the 86-year-old composer with ovation after ovation throughout the concert, then carried on at the end until the house lights were finally turned on and the orchestra left the stage.
Those players seemed to have as much fun all night as the folks in the hall, responding with terrific zest and lyrical fire to both Williams and BSO music director Marin Alsop. She conducted the program’s first half — “The warm-up act,” she called it — and jumped in for a little of the second.
The best movie soundtracks hold up firmly in concert. And, as a slyly smiling Williams said to the crowd, “It’s good for the ego of the composer to play [the music] without the distraction of the film.”
But a score by Williams is invariably so colorful and evocative that, even out of context, it generates a kind of cinematic experience. This was especially evident as Williams led the orchestra through vibrant selections from “Harry Potter” films and the fleet and sweet finale to “E.T.”
In addition to such blockbuster soundtracks, the program included a haunting suite for cello and orchestra from the less traveled “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Here, the composer’s sophisticated sense of instrumental shading could be as richly savored as his deft handling of thematic development.
The brilliant cellist Johannes Moser delivered the solo part with exquisite nuance of tone and phrase. He did the same in a late addition to the program, the “Elegy,” with Williams again drawing supple support from the ensemble.
Alsop’s contributions to the program included leading a snappy performance of “To Lenny! To Lenny!” composed with great cleverness and charm by Williams as a salute to Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday in 1988.
With Alsop on the podium, the BSO also did shining work in selections from “Hook,” “The BFG,” and, to particularly vivid effect, “Jaws.” The conductor coaxed lush sounds from the strings in “With Malice Toward None,” a portion of the “Lincoln” soundtrack that finds Williams building on stylistic elements of Aaron Copland and Vaughan Williams.
Film composers have always borrowed from others — there’s a lot of Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst in “Throne Room and Finale” from “Star Wars” — but Williams always puts his own stamp on everything, all the while conscientiously serving the cinematic product. That’s why he has been so valued in Hollywood for so long.
One reason why he’s valued everywhere is that he comes across as humble, appreciative and generous as he is talented.
Williams is a good sport, too — he threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game earlier in the week. That didn’t exactly lift the team (even a pitch from the Pope might not help now), but a lot of us sure got a terrific boost from having Williams back in Baltimore.