In the music of John Williams, love stretches through galaxies and “Across the Stars.” It binds all together; it is an invisible, though powerful, Force. On the evening of Valentine’s Day, Williams took the conductor’s baton at Davies Symphony Hall to play some of his most famous pieces — and some new ones too — with the San Francisco Symphony.
Williams had just turned 91, but his spirits remained high, his humor fresh. He approached each piece with tenderness, even as he wandered onto the dark side. Alongside German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, he imbued his work with lustrous vitality and shining wit.
The symphony opened with the jaunty “Sound the Bells!,” written for the wedding of Japan’s now-emperor Naruhito and empress Masako Owada. Inspired by Japanese temple bells, the song filled the venue with a celebratory air that rippled through each section of the orchestra, ringing in the start of a triumphant night.
Then, Mutter emerged in a draping, floor-length hot pink dress that stood in stark contrast to the black ensembles of the symphony. Immediately, the chemistry between the violinist and Williams was apparent as the longtime collaborators greeted each other warmly before the crowd. Raising her violin to her shoulder, Mutter gave a heartfelt, evocative performance of Williams’ enchanting Violin Concerto No. 2.
Debuted with the Boston Symphony in July 2021, the concerto was composed specifically for Mutter, who has an “infectious rhythmic swagger,” according to Williams. Mutter’s musicality moved from slow, suspended movements to swift, sputtering explosions of sound. As she transitioned between the eerie, quasi-improvisational “Prologue” to the buttery “Rounds” to the rapid “Dactyls,” the symphony remained under her and Williams’ lead, taking the audience on a dramatic and expansive journey.
Williams is credited with the revival of symphonic film scores, especially with his work on “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” Rather than pausing for an intermission as the program indicated, Williams delighted the audience with a preview of Helena’s theme from “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” set to premiere June 30. This may be the fifth installment of the franchise, but Williams joked that it felt like the tenth.
Played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Helena has been teased as a 1940s “femme fatale” who smokes and drinks, yet still remains beautiful. Though the song began delicately, it swelled with beautiful bouts of emotion, comparable to the themes of Rey and Leia in “Star Wars.” As Mutter’s violin fluttered over the twinkling track, the audience became immersed in the timeless tale of America’s favorite archeologist.
The second half of the program featured a sundry selection of Williams’ film scores, from “Hook” to “Cinderella Liberty.” During “The Duel” from “The Adventures of Tintin,” the music reflected a lively, animated battle. The scene need not be playing over the symphony’s head to evoke the popping off of buttons and the action-packed conflict.
Mutter returned to Williams’ side for “Hedwig’s Theme” from “Harry Potter,” and though the track was immediately recognizable to the cheering crowd, Mutter’s performance lent it new life. Eyes remained fixed on her every move, tracking where her fast-paced, sizzling energy would lead her next. Magnificently nostalgic, the performance sprinkled Davies Symphony Hall with some much-needed Hogwarts magic.
No Williams appearance would be complete without “Star Wars;” attendees dressed in intergalactic attire and wielding lightsabers attested to the anticipation. With the program’s scheduled finish of “Throne Room and Finale” from “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” the SF Symphony more than rose to the occasion, bringing the film’s famous leitmotifs and jubilant themes to life with enchanting synchrony.
Williams’ career spans over five decades, and while he already has an impressive body of work behind him, he continues to compose. Although he teased leaving the stage several times, even holding his hands to his ears to indicate he would soon go to sleep, he returned for encore after encore, ultimately ending with “The Imperial March” from “Star Wars.” Darth Vader’s famous cue may not be the way people expected to conclude the day of love, but the fan favorite was welcome nonetheless.
From Mutter’s adoring gaze to the audience’s countless standing ovations, one thing was clear in Davies Symphony Hall: Williams is beloved. Perhaps he was the Valentine everyone needed.