Concert for the Ages: Kennedy Center’s Tribute to John Williams, 90

It is doubtful that anyone exiting the Kennedy Center Concert Hall June 23 with big smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes would dispute this statement: It was one of the, if not the, greatest, most thrilling, most completely satisfying concerts we ever attended. It was a celebration of John Williams and his 90th birthday at the Kennedy Center.

The birthday boy was there, sitting in the first section of the orchestra seats, left side. Film director Steven Spielberg was a lively presence on stage energetically and lovingly making and managing tributes from movie directors, producers and “Star Wars” stars, including Daisy Ridley. All this was accompanied often with clips and personal appearances shown on the large screen on stage –and backed by the full 100-piece National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by swooning French conductor Stephane Deneve.

From the opening stirring sounds and visuals of Williams’s end credits from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and excerpts from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the audience was completely captivated by the rousing music from the films they have loved for decades. The haunting “Markings” and “Hedwig’s Theme” from “Harry Potter” was played passionately by world famous violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. 

The piece Williams himself calls his favorite, the most evocative, dramatic, tragic and stirring theme from “Schindler’s List” was played quietly, emotionally, provocatively by Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the most beloved, highly diverse cellist in the world. Both classically trained musicians Mutter and Ma have collaborated on dozens of William’s movie scores and albums including Williams’s latest with Ma released this spring, “A Gathering of Friends” with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Perhaps the most thrilling for many in the audience was the orchestra’s full rendition of Williams’s 1984 Olympic Fanfare and Theme which began with spine-tingling trumpet Fanfare was played by U.S. Army Herald Trumpet corps from a balcony above the orchestra and introduced by six-time Olympic athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Along the athletic theme, Vanessa, the widow of the NBA super star Kobe Bryant, introduced Williams’s theme music and full showing of the 2017 short film, “Dear Basketball.”

Spielberg unabashedly attributed Williams’s genius and his music to the success of some 29 films Williams has scored for the unmatchable movie director over the past 50 years.

“All the while he became a dear and sweet friend who is unfailingly kind and modest,” Spielberg said from the stage, smiling fondly at the white- haired composer. Those movies and music are known by billions of people around the world: “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Harry Potter, “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Superman,” “E.T.” and even the “Adventures of Tintin,” which Ma playfully performed, and themes from “Jurassic Park.”

Williams has been awarded five Oscars and 52 Academy Award nominations; but that hardly captures the global cultural recognition and admiration he has inspired from people of all ages and cultures.

Williams recently announced that he would be stepping back from composing full film scores to concentrate more on concert music and instrumental concertos such as one for piano he is writing for Emanual Ax. But his movie legacies will live on. At the Kennedy Center, the finale of selections from “Star Wars” left the crowd of all ages cheering and crying, clapping and completely joyous. 

Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Spielberg, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Daisy Ridley congratulate composer John Williams on the Kennedy Center stage June 23. Photo by Scott Suchman — courtesy National Symphony Orchestra.


Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yo-Yo Ma play around during the concert celebration of John Williams. Photo by Scott Suchman — courtesy National Symphony Orchestra.


Director Stephen Spielberg, whose films were enhanced and improved, as he has said, by the music of John Williams, speaks about his friend and star composer. Photo by Scott Suchman — courtesy National Symphony Orchestra.


The Kennedy Center June 23. Photo by Scott Suchman — courtesy National Symphony Orchestra.


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