I have had the great opportunity to see John Williams play in concert several times over the past 20 years, both in various US cities as well as abroad. He rarely makes it to the west coast of the US so when he does, I make every effort I can to see him. This most recent tour he did was a 4-day stint of solo recitals, making his way first through California – San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Cerritos, with the fourth and final concert in Portland, Oregon. This was so poorly advertised that I wasn’t made aware of this until the week of the concerts (I’ve read this same complaint on the forums from others who found out too late as well). Fortunately, a good friend living in Portland who was “in the know” was able to secure 2nd row tickets, so it all worked out incredibly well.

On paper, the program looked rather plain – essentially a bunch of old standard Williams classics – nothing terribly exciting – but this all changed once the music began. He was also very chatty with the audience – incredibly charming, humorous and informative, a very nice touch that I don’t recall being part of his presentation in previous recitals.

It began with Williams briskly walking out in his well-known casual attire, (sans glasses) but with a long-sleeved turtleneck, casual trousers. He sat down and got right to it – Prelude #1 by Villa-Lobos, executed with the mechanical precision and power we’ve all come to know as his trademark style. After the piece was completed, he picked up a microphone to quickly point out that that although a “Prelude” was usually the first movement of a suite of movements within a piece, we were going to get 4 more Preludes, which prompted a few giggles from the audience. Then he delivered numbers 2-5 with the same rigor as #1. I did notice one curiosity – in #5, rather than play the standard A-B-C-A, he fitted in an additional “A” section, making it A-B-A-C-A. Not sure if this was an accidental slip or intentionally planned, as John maintained a steady poker-face through the entire piece. He then picked up the microphone and introduced the next item on the menu, the three-movement “El Decameron negro”, by Leo Brouwer, revealing the composer’s inspiration in the collected African folktales of the 19th (and early 20th) century anthropologist Leo Frobenius. This is a piece that sounds almost “built” for John Williams, particularly in the second movement “The Flight of the Lovers Through the Valley of Echoes”. With great ease, Williams blasted through the machine-like arpeggiated sections in the middle of the movement, where a series of variations on a theme are announced one by one, (each with an “echo” trailing behind the initial announcement). The rhythmic precision and intense technical demands of the piece were no challenge to Mr. Williams as expected, but it is still something to behold. The final movement, a beautiful (and “tonal”) ballad rounded off the first half of the recital.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of the review.

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8 Responses to “Concert Review – John Williams in Portland (Part 1)”

  1. marc says:

    Thank you for sharing your evening. I love “live” concerts: each is unique on that one very sole occasion.

    I had an opportunity to see Mr. Williams in Chicago a few years back. It was an excellent concert, albeit I don’t recall him being so talkative. He amplified at the time due to the large hall, something frequently remarked on by Christopher Parkening. When I last saw Mr. Parkening he did not amplify, and he spoke at some length of the need for the guitarist to “play louder” for the audience.

    However, as a youngster in the 1960’s I recall Segovia playing in Cleveland, Ohio at Severance Hall and hearing little of the performance as it was so soft. I suppose I prefer amplification (over none) in those settings that require it.

    So I am curious: Did Mr. Williams amplify his performance? Was it a large or medium (or even an intimate) size hall? I am assuming it was sold out.

    And if anyone has any insight into the poor advertising surrounding these special occasions (a similar experience here) I would love to hear from them. Is it possibly the small advertising budgets available?

    Look forward to Part 2.



  2. Bill Edmund says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with others. It is worth seeing John Williams whenever he is touring in the United States, and it would be nice to have more advance notice to attend such a prolific talent. Maybe his promoters will get the message that he is incredibly rare talent that is highly desired to be seen when performing his classical repertoire…..

  3. J. Roll-Mederos says:

    For those who want advance notice, John Williams will be playing in Boston on 3/25/11 at Jordan Hall (New England Conservatory) as part of the “Celebrity Series” ( I bought my tickets in September, the day they went on sale to the general public.

  4. Kai says:

    Thanks for the heads up. And Jordan Hall is one the best sounding halls I know to hear guitar.

  5. J. Rosenberg says:

    I heard Williams last night in Boston. A mightly impressive performance, indeed. He did use amplification and it was extremely natural sounding. The microphone he used to address the audience was much less so.

  6. Brian Cullen says:

    I too attended the Boston concert last night 3/25/11 and absolutely loved it. I also attended his concert at the Jordan Hall 22 years ago without amplification or his Smallman guitar. For me last night was probably the best guitar concert I have ever heard and I have been playing and listening for 40 years. The Smallman is in my opinion a guitarists dream , everything all in one package. John Williams sound is his sound regardless of what guitar he plays. It’s not a matter of tone, dynamics or whatever, he just sounds like himself and nobody else !

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