The Force is strong with the Boston Pops Orchestra at the Hearst Greek Theatre tribute to composer John Williams

Boston Pops
Brittany Hosea Small/Courtesy
From left to right: UC Berkeley director of bands Dr. Robert Calonico, piccolo soloist Margaret Shi and drum major Sarah Manthorpe. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Manthorpe said that she was blown away by “Hedwig’s Theme.”

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Saturday’s tribute to legendary film composer and former Boston Pops Orchestra conductor John Williams wouldn’t have been complete without a rendition of the “Main Title” from “Star Wars.” You know the one: the triumphant march that accompanies the scrolling yellow text of every film in the main saga. The tune is as iconic for the Pops as “We Are the Champions” is for Queen.

While the Pops did play a set of “Star Wars” tunes, the tracks did not constitute the orchestra’s farewell number. In a finale appearance — the dramatics of which would make Luke Skywalker proud — Cal Band surrounded the pit of the Hearst Greek Theatre to perform “Fight for California” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” alongside the Pops.

The moment of patriotism for both campus and country was fitting. After all, it was Cal Day, and the Pops — aside from its illustrious former conductor — is best known for its annual Fourth of July concerts.

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” traditionally calls for a piccolo solo, and Cal Band was happy to oblige — UC Berkeley student Margaret Shi walked onstage to perform alongside the iconic orchestra. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Shi said the experience of performing alongside the Pops was nerve-wracking. “Dancing with my friends to the ‘Star Wars’ theme (backstage) was really fun, so that really eased my nerves a little,” she added.

Even though Shi’s solo was a highlight of the night, Shi said her favorite moment was the presentation of the Cal Performances Award of Distinction in the Performing Arts to outgoing UC Berkeley director of bands Robert Calonico. Matías Tarnopolsky, Cal Performances’ outgoing executive and artistic director, presented Calonico with the award, eliciting cheers from Cal Band musicians and audience members alike.

“I’m a graduating senior, so I don’t have to live a single year at Cal without Bob, and that’s very fortunate because we all love Bob so much,” Shi said of Calonico, who served as the Cal Band director for 28 years.

But Cal Band festivities certainly didn’t overshadow the Boston Pops, conductor Keith Lockhart or the music of John Williams. Lockhart swayed jokingly as he conducted the ominous opening chug to the “Jaws” theme, imbuing the concert with a playfulness that peaked in the cheeky brass of the “Raiders March” from the “Indiana Jones” films.

Boston Pops

Brittany Hosea / Courtesy

Of course, Williams’ music runs a wide gamut of emotions, which the Pops expertly tapped into. In light of actress Carrie Fisher’s passing in 2016, the lilting string melody of “Princess Leia’s Theme” sounded as elegiac as it was lush — more than a few fans wiped away stray tears.

Curating a setlist from Williams’ six-decadelong discography is no easy feat. Lockhart deserves credit for balancing perennial crowd pleasers with lesser-known works, such as music from Williams’ early years as a composer for disaster films. But “Stargazers,” based on cues from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” was the show’s most evocative song. When heard under a blue night sky, Ina Zdorovetchi’s deft harp performance lent the tune a dignified pensiveness.

However, some notable omissions included Williams’ themes from “Jurassic Park,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and his most recent work on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The latter, Williams’ most inspired work in years, was substituted for a rendition of “Cantina Band,” which, adapted for a full orchestra, lost the original arrangement’s spunk, and sounded disappointingly deflated.

These tunes were likely left out to keep the two-hour concert light on its feet, but the very fact that one could have listened to the Pops perform for another half-hour speaks to its sheer skill and, most of all, to the timelessness of Williams’ work.

The Greek Theatre wasn’t exactly packed, but those gathered ranged in age from about six to 60. The tangible pathos of Williams’ work is remarkably legible, even to those who can’t yet read, becoming even more profound as time passes: the music’s moonless concavities and gleaming ebbs becoming more transparent with age.

Williams’ legacy only ever augments in significance — one can only imagine how sublime the Pops will sound when they inevitably return to the Greek, with the added benefit of time.

Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].