This cello concerto by the renowned film music composer is not by any stretch of the imagination transplanted film music. But fans of the greatest of his movie scores will welcome the fact that it, nevertheless, recognizably speaks in John Williams' voice. He is, after all, the same composer.
While Williams was music director of the Boston Pops, Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa suggested that Williams compose a work for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the orchestra. Williams began work on it at the end of 1993, beginning a period during which Williams had cleared his film music calendar of projects for about a year. (He also worked on his Bassoon Concerto, "Five Sacred Trees" at this time.)
Williams premiered the cello concerto leading the Boston Symphony with Ma as soloist in June 1994, dedicating new concert facilities at Tanglewood, the orchestra's famous summer venue. It is a full-scale concerto in four movements, lasting 30 minutes. Its style is post-Romantic, tonal though quite chromatic. It is less modernistic than the more mysterious Sacred Trees concerto, not afraid to evoke the romantic sweep of Williams' best film themes.
As such it is, of all of Williams' large-scale concert scores, the one most likely to enthrall his film music fans. The four movements are highly contrasting, though played without pause. The strongest characteristic in common with the film music is a surefire sense of dramatic structure and flow.
The first movement, "Theme and Cadenza," opens with bright orchestral calls to attention, the sets out a shimmering orchestral backdrop for the cello to state and develop the single main theme. This theme is multi-faceted: It has elements of joy, tension, and energy that are fated to make the soloist the protagonist in a traditional concerto-style conversation/struggle with the orchestra. It is a struggle the cello wins, as it leaves the orchestra behind for a brilliant cadenza. All the orchestra can do after that is reestablish the shimmering sounds of the opening and participate in a segue to --
"Blues," the second movement. It starts with some chiming textures, then establishes a quasi-improvisatory mood with some plucked notes from the cello. Williams seems pleased to see the shades of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in this music, but says he did not set out with conscious intent to evoke them.
The dazzling and rapid "Scherzo" starts with more or less small-scale, pointillistic events trading places between the soloist and orchestra members. As the music builds up and gathers energy, kinship with Williams action cues -- asteroid fields and Indiana Jones motor chases, for instance -- is detectable.
Realizing from his work with the cellist that one of Ma's greatest strengths is his way of engaging the audience on a personal level through the lyricism of his playing, Williams, devoted the final movement to that quality. The music is deeply touching, and rises to a beautiful peroration in a manner reminiscent of Williams' own best heart-touching moments, but with an overlay of tragedy in the very ending.