John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter gave the world premiere of Williams’ Second Violin Concerto at Tanglewood in 2021, then repeated it two months later for the first Boston Symphony Hall season since lockdown. They return to Tanglewood in a warm-up for the impending European tour, where the concerto will be played in Lucerne, Salzburg, and Hamburg. This time, Andris Nelsons conducted, with the 91 year-old Williams making a surprise appearance to lead two encores orchestrated for Mutter from his film scores: “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and “Helena’s Theme” from the recent Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

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Anne-Sophie Mutter, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

Within the context of the pandemic, that Symphony Hall performance resonated with the emotions surrounding the halting steps towards something approaching normality which the reopening represented. While not conceived as a response to Covid nor the tumultuous political scene which complicated the response, in the minds of some, the music could not help but to speak to those things. What I wrote about that concert still applies, but, as Williams himself wrote in his program  note, meaning ultimately derives from the “ear of the beholder”. This time the piece hit the ear differently and on a more generalized yet intimate level, not only because we are nearly two years along from the circumstances of that second performance but because it assimilates harmonic and thematic qualities represented by the Strauss and Ravel pieces that followed it in this concert.

What was much clearer this time was the concerto’s architecture and its depth of emotion, spawned from the increased familiarity of everyone involved. More perceptible this time around were the rippling circularities spinning through the incandescent second movement, “Rounds”, and the various combinations of three, ranging from the meter to groupings of notes and instruments, in the third (!) movement, “Dactyls”. This yielded a greater sense of structural coherence. There's an important theme which grows out of "Rounds" and returns at the close of the piece, as the harp and violin end their dialogue. In this performance, that theme made a sharper, deeper impression than it did at Symphony Hall. Human beings are wired to appreciate symmetry. Having it so discernible here added to the aesthetic pleasure of the performance and to the admiration for Williams’s accomplishment.

Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Ravel’s La Valse both dramatize nostalgia and loss. Each begins quietly and haltingly. In Strauss’s case, the fragments approximate the labored breathing of a dying man, while in Ravel’s, they are moments glimpsed through the mists of memory.  Strauss’s tone poem eventually takes shape as the vivid struggles and reminiscences of a dying artist. Nelsons’s command of this score was most evident in the control and release of tension and the balance of the various sections. The transition from the quiet, labored opening to the artist’s grappling with death packed an impressive punch and the transfiguration was luminous and heartfelt. In the Ravel, Nelsons precisely paced the rhythms as they gradually emerged from the mist to insistently propel the fragments into a glittering waltz. Spectral wisps threw it off balance. As it regained its feet, Nelsons’s attacks became sharper, adding an hysterical edge. Dissonances crept in to eventually send the orchestra reeling like a lead-footed drunk who finally stumbles, twitching, then crumples in a heap.

This time and in this company, Mutter’s violin sounded like the interior monologue of someone dealing with the misgivings and challenges of putting themselves back together. Its French inflections were also more apparent, particularly the harmonic ones. Where Strauss is confident of all the Sturm und Drang culminating in a redeeming transcendence, Williams’s closing bars, while avoiding Ravel’s rubble, only whisper a hint of acceptance and affirmation.