There may not have been any popcorn for sale but there was a palpable feeling of movie magic when megastar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter made a welcome return to Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a night of music by John Williams, featuring a concerto written for the German virtuoso.
There were also some second features on offer with excerpts from Bernard Herrmann’s gripping soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Nino Rota’s lushly romantic suite from The Leopard and Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s delightful Flying Dream suite from the 2015 movie Paper Planes.
Williams started out on his first violin concerto more than 50 years ago, after his wife actress Barbara Ruick died in 1974. Now almost 50 years later his second concerto, premiered at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts, is a musical tribute to another woman in his life.
“I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the violin itself,” Williams says. “While writing, I recalled her flair for an infectious rhythmic swagger that is particularly her own.”
The 35-minute work may come as a surprise to people who only know Williams for his blockbuster movie soundtracks – one sensed that several people in the packed Opera House Concert Hall didn’t quite know how to take it. No hints of Yoda, Harry Potter or Indiana Jones here, more the influences of Mahler, Bartok and Debussy.
Williams studied composition with Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco before attending Juilliard, and as well as his six-decade filmography he has composed two symphonies, 11 concertos, a cycle of orchestral songs and various items of chamber music. All of this training is brought to bear with an orchestral magician’s unerring touch in the concerto, which deserves to become a mainstay in the concert repertoire.
That said, it is difficult to imagine anyone else performing this virtuosic and ultimately joyful piece with anything like the aplomb and tonal beauty that Mutter brings to it.
Working seamlessly in tandem with SSO Chief Conductor Simone Young, this was an evening to remember. Armed with one of her two Stradivarius violins and dressed in one of her trademark sumptuous shoulder-less gowns, Mutter, at the age of 60, shows all the power, attack and control that she has done over a career that dates back to her discovery by Herbert van Karajan when she was just 13.
The work opens with a solo harp, featuring Acting Principal Natalie Wong – who was to play a key role in other Williams pieces later on – and some Mahlerian chords before Mutter enters with her honeyed tone in the lower strings. Throughout the four movements Williams is generous with his cadenzas, allowing the soloist to run the gamut of effects, from double stopping, trills, wild leaping runs and furious bowing.
In the second movement, Rounds, he asks Mutter to improvise, and here we hear the influence of one of Williams’s other idols, jazz arranger Gil Evans. There is an achingly lovely passage that seems to look to the stars, with Josh Batty’s flute solo taken up by Mutter.
Williams’s mastery of narrative is always on display and Young switched tempos and moods skilfully, backed by a band at the top of their form. The third movement, Dactyls, features the soloist duelling with a percussion department which took out the entire back row of the stage. Timpanist Mark Robinson got a well-deserved ovation at the end of the work.
If some of the audience members were yearning for more familiar territory they got it with Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter franchise and the theme from The Long Goodbye, Williams’s score for Robert Altman’s take on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe murder mystery.
And if that wasn’t enough Mutter and Young threw in three unannounced extras to complete this truly cinematic experience.