Rows of white jackets greeted John Williams as he took the stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl Saturday night and the Music Academy of the West’s new season began. Williams, one of the most prolific composers of music for film, started things off boldly, with a fresh, sparkling performance of Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. The rest of the concert was all Williams, but the choice of Shostakovich was entirely appropriate-Williams shares the Russian composer’s ability to incorporate folk melodies into dissonant, modern harmonies and complex rhythms.
This connection became even clearer when Gil Shaham (pictured above left) played Williams’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Despite the work’s extreme technical challenges, Shaham performed with energy, enthusiasm, and a sense of ease behind the urgency of its melodic lines. In particular, Shaham’s handling of the cadenza showed us his extraordinary range and skill, rapidly moving from a brilliant legato line to a series of double-stops and arpeggios, all the while making a single, clear statement. The Academy Festival Orchestra followed Williams’s baton through the work’s difficult rhythms precisely, and the overall effect was stimulating and challenging.
The big moment came after the intermission, when Williams led the orchestra through the scores of some of the most popular films of all time. The excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind brought back the mystery of the film, and the sheer wonder of E. T., the Extraterrestrial rounded out the end of the concert beautifully. However, the work that moved the audience most was Three Pieces from Schindler’s List, for which Shaham generously provided the violin solo. Williams balanced the menace of deep bass lines from the lower strings and brass with the sorrowful melody of a Kol Nidre in the violin, reminding us of that film’s extraordinary juxtaposition of monstrous inhumanity with common human decency. As we made our way down the hill from the Bowl after the concert, the memories that Williams’s music evoked stayed with us. Congratulations to the Music Academy of the West on the beginning of another fine season.