Guitarist John Williams at Perelman Theater

The casual virtuoso

Williams: Well beyond the standard clasical repertoire.
Williams: Well beyond the standard clasical repertoire.

I've now heard guitarist John Williams in concert at least five or six times. On none of those occasions, whether appearing at Symphony Hall with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or at the Kimmel Center as he did this month, was Williams ever clad in anything more formal than a dark pullover shirt, black slacks and well-polished but casual Oxfords— certainly not the customary wardrobe of a world-class classical musician.

For an artist performing on one of the "traditional" classical instruments such as violin or piano, such informality would be near-scandalous. But Williams's modest appearance perfectly suits his virtuosic talent: unpretentious and understated, yet absolutely pure and exacting. Among classical guitarists, Williams is famed for his impeccable, laser-sharp technique, the sheer physical perfection of his playing, which was in full evidence at his latest sold-out Perelman Theater concert.

Some virtuosos are all about showing you how good they are, never missing a chance to remind you of their fiery athleticism on their chosen instrument, whether it serves the music or not. Williams is just the opposite. He actually makes you forget just how good he is, because he never allows his technical virtuosity to overshadow the essential musicality, the emotional core, of whatever he's playing. And yet he simultaneously makes it look easy. I suspect I wasn't the only other amateur classical guitarist present who allowed himself to believe, just for a fleeting moment, that, yes, maybe on a good day when the fingers were working just right, perhaps I too could execute that Vivaldi allegro just as fluidly as Williams did….

An eclectic repertoire

For the past several years, Williams has performed basically every second year as part of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's season. Never content to limit his repertoire to the staid and predictable, he's recorded and performed not only the entire catalogue of standard classical guitar works, but also everything from film music to the works of modern African and South American composers.

Earlier in his career Williams even played a side gig in the jazz-rock fusion group Sky; and last time he visited Philadelphia in 2007, he brought along the jazz guitarist John Etheridge to help him let that side of his musical personality shine a bit, treating the audience to a wildly eclectic concert featuring jazz, blues and some exotically ethnic influences.

Not to be confused with…

But Williams has never forsaken his first love, the classical guitar. His program this time, although perhaps not quite as daring as the evening with Etheridge, ranged across centuries and styles, from a Bach transcription of a Vivaldi harpsichord concerto to a pair of Scarlatti sonatas to film music from Ennio Morricone and the "other John Williams," the famous film composer of Star Wars and countless other Hollywood blockbusters. In his soft-spoken commentary between pieces, Williams wryly admitted that, yes, he's occasionally mistaken for the soundtrack composer, but he offered a handy way to tell them apart: His middle initial is "C," while that of Spielberg's favorite musician is "T."

It certainly doesn't help the confusion, though, that John Williams the guitarist is also a noted composer in his own right, and his Tuesday night program featured several of his own short works, all intricately melodic and delicate pieces that expertly explored the unique range and voice of his instrument.

Whether by design or happy circumstance, the entire evening proved not only an ideal introduction to the versatility of Williams himself as an artist, but to the range and depth of the classical guitar in general for the uninitiated, as it certainly did for my concert-going companion. She was new to both Williams and the classical guitar, but came away a devoted convert. Ultimately true artistry doesn't need a tuxedo, a white tie, or any other fancy trappings— it speaks for itself.

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