Here’s part 2 of David Collett’s review of the John Williams concert he attended in Portland last week:
After a seemingly endless intermission, the lights suddenly dimmed and before everyone had the chance to be seated, Williams was already well into the next piece, “O Bia”. Many of you will know this piece as the opening track from his album of African music, “The Magic Box”, which was recorded with a percussionist and double-bassist accompanying the guitar. This cheery, happy “solo” version seemed to put Mr. Williams in good spirits. After the applause died down, he gave a very moving account of his friendship with the composer, Francis Bebey (who passed away in 2001, shortly after “The Magic Box” was recorded), who was born in Cameroon and lived a remarkable life – as a composer, multi-instrumentalist (reportedly he could play over 100 instruments – African and European alike), award-winning novelist and poet, radio personality, and consultant for UNICEF. But Williams pointed out that his adoration for Bebey was in his role as a humanist, who used his art to preach peace and love between the world’s races. Williams made the excellent point that music should unite us all, bring us together and allow us all to be happy. What else? This introduced the next set of 4 pieces, all composed by John Williams himself. The final piece of the quartet, called “Hello Francis” was a lovely tribute to Francis Bebey and was based on the musical themes found in “O Bia”. The other 3 pieces, called “From a Bird 1, 2 and 3” were written many years ago after he heard the sound of a beautiful birdsong in the Australian morning one day, upon awakening. He recalls hearing the main theme (in #1) as having been both “tonal” and “rhythmically” precise. He was so impressed with the latter that he had to preserve it in a set of charming guitar “miniatures”. What a bird that must have been! He then closed out the second half of the concert with a series of well-known pieces by Augustin Barrios Mangore, again with a few fascinating anecdotes about the composer and the pieces. Although he has recorded these pieces multiple times over the years and has performed them tirelessly for decades, they are still fresh in his hands. He started with the 3-movement “La Catedral”, then knocked out “Julia Florida”, “Vals No. 3”, “Vals No. 4”, before ending with the triumphant yet nostalgic piece that is practically synonymous with his own name – the epic “Un Sueno en la floresta”. As the final tremolo came to a close, he was greeted with a standing ovation. He had one encore in him, “Como llora una estrella” by Venezuelan composer Antonio Carillo. This haunting piece brought the entire evening to a perfect close.
Although Williams has the reputation for giving clinical, note-perfect performances, this recital was the most “human” of any I’ve seen. There was the odd buzz or squeak here and there, and he did play with color and dynamics in ways that were a bit out of character but well-suited and appreciated by the audience. Despite the fact that he is perhaps the most polarizing of guitarists, there is one thing I think we can all agree on – he delivers the goods unlike anyone else. Love him or hate him, there is only one John Williams, and he’s still out there doing what he does best. Don’t miss him if you have the chance to catch him.
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