Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 24, 2022

John Williams 90th Birthday Celebration & Personal Thoughts about a Genius in our Time

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 20, 2022
by Shera Cohen

It was no surprise that the caravan of cars from the highway through Lee, MA and onto Lenox, MA to attend the John Williams 90th Birthday Celebration at Tanglewood would be long. My Plus 1 friend and I set out at 6pm. It was my fault for changing our journey's departure from 5:30pm. No problem, plenty of time for the chimes of the 8pm bells marking the start of the concert, I thought. Wrong!

"Young John Williams"
Literally inching our way, what I will call, the third leg of the trip, Plus 1 said, "By the time we get there it will be John Williams' 91st birthday." The fourth and last leg of the trip took place on the Tanglewood property itself. As joyful as it was to finally see the driveway with the hanging sign "Tanglewood Main Gate," that was a tease that we still weren't at the end of the trip. I will admit, that being a member of the press, yet by no means anything even remotely important as the New York Times, or the like, I had the benefit of a yellow piece of paper.

It was like magic when the numerous teens and twenty-something ushers each wearing a day-glow colored jacket so that they can been seen in the dark, looked at the yellow placard in the car window. The Tanglewood driveways were gravel and stone with some pavement; definitely not a yellow brick road, however more exciting to me. It was now 7:55pm. We took the tickets, responding with huge THANK YOUS, realizing we weren't quite at our destination yet. The next step was the walk to one of the entrances to the huge, acoustically perfect green shed. A stroke of luck or serendipity befell us; a large white golf cart awaited as if this rendezvous had been planned. I had seen small carts in the past, strictly for use by audience members in need of mobile help. New and improved policies by Tanglewood management, I would guess, added far more small vans for use by anyone in a lot far from the concert tent. We hopped on, again with huge THANK YOUS to the driver.

Having been to Tanglewood since I was a young adult, I knew that the property was fields and slopes of gorgeous green grass, pristinely mowed with twisted tree trunks, trimmed shrubs, and grapevines strewn about. I don't know the number of patrons, but my guess is that 15,000 parked themselves, folding chairs, blankets, table clothes, and coolers on the lawn. It was almost impossible to envision the grassy hills underneath. By adding the numbers seated in the tent to those on the lawn, I find it amazing and wonderful that a composer, in this case, John Williams, likely has a larger draw than a Harrison Ford + a Steven Spielberg + a tent full of Wookies together.

Wiliams and ET, 1983

I hadn't realized until I returned home and read the evening's program that all of the music had been composed by Williams, except for a piece from Rodgers & Hammerstein and one by James Taylor. Speaking of Taylor, who is one of Tanglewood's biggest fans and benefactors, his on-stage tribute to Williams was personal and endearing. One might think that a music piece coupling Taylor's voice and guitar with Yo Yo Ma cello strings would be atypical, that would be correct; atypical and exquisite. Another unexpected duo was Williams' "Highwood's Ghost," again featuring the incomparable and always-smiling Ma with harpist Jessica Zhou. Seated by the most aesthetically constructed instrument in any orchestra, Zhou dipped her harp toward her body, arms stretched across the strings. Wearing a deep red ballroom dress, Zhou came to Williams' party to honor him. 

Guest conductor Ken-David Masur and the BSO performance also included Branford Marsalis (saxophone), J. William Hudgins (vibraphone), and Eric Revis (bass). My bet is that most in the audience, especially myself, were unfamiliar with the music: "Just Down West Street," "Pickin'," "To Lenny! To Lenny!" None had the distinguishable refrains and epic finales of Williams' cadre of movie music. Yet each of these selections were all works of the maestro, from the first note to the last.

Williams and Spielberg

The concert, audience, weather, and the fact that John Williams sat only six rows in front of me, made the night perfect. But there was a tad missing. At a point later in the evening, when Masur pointed his baton, leading the BSO to strike the first six notes of "Star Wars," the audience cheered so that all of Lenox could probably hear. The two pieces were from "Star Wars: A New Hope," but identifying the correct episode didn't matter.

How many more standing ovations was the audience up to? I certainly lost count. Of course, Williams had to be coaxed out of his seat to the stage to receive the audience's "Happy Birthday". I do not know Mr. Williams personally and have only seen him on TV and in a shed with thousands of others, but he seems to be a shy, self-effacing genius. Masur handed the baton to Williams to conduct the trademark music from "Raiders of the Lost Ark". It is safe to say that not even fireworks could have topped off John Williams -- The Tanglewood 90th Birthday Celebration with more splendor.