John Williams: A Hollywood Legend (Concert Review)

Hollywood Bowl – August 30, 2008

John Williams’ annual concert of film music with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl has been an annual tradition for me as long as I have lived in Southern California.  I’ve been a huge fan of Williams’ music since I was a kid and I love these regular opportunities to hear his music live, particularly with Williams conducting it himself.

Even though I have continued to attend, and thoroughly enjoy, the concerts every year, my last review was of the 2005 concert.  The concerts are great fun, but the content is basically similar from year to year.  The concerts tend to be targeted more towards the fans of Williams’ mainstream blockbusters than at film score enthusiasts, which results in the selections usually being drawn from a somewhat limited subset of Williams’ exceptional repertoire of compositions.

Williams typically includes a section featuring additional material besides his own during his concerts, sometimes including guest performers.  My interest in those parts has varied from year to year.  Generally, I have most enjoyed those segments when they have been very focused on classic film music that clearly influenced or otherwise connected strongly with Williams.  The second half of this year’s concert featured a lengthy tribute to musicals directed by Stanley Donen, with each piece introduced (in person) by Donen himself.  This was easily my favorite "extra" yet from the Williams’ Hollywood Bowl concerts I have attended.

As is traditional at the Hollywood Bowl, the concert opened with The Star-Spangled Banner, which is always great to hear performed by a full orchestra. I honestly kind of feel bad even complaining about it, but it was hurt a bit this time by someone behind me that was singing along very loudly and very off-key.  Obviously, it is perfectly normal and expected to sing along with the national anthem and I even admire the show of patriotism, but it was still a bit hard to be right in front of rather loud, off-key singing like that.

I wasn’t too surprised that the regular program started with three of Williams’ Olympic themes, considering that the concert was just a week after the end of the 2008 Summer Olympics.  First was Bugler’s Dream / Olympic Fanfare and Theme, Williams’ very familiar arrangement of the well-known Leo Arnaud piece that has long been the Olympic theme, which then transitions directly into Williams’ popular theme for the 1984 Summer Olympics.  This was followed by Song for World Peace, which Williams didn’t actually write for the Olympics (it was actually written as a tribute to a friend), but which initially was recorded on the American Journey CD that was released in conjunction with the 2002 Winter Olympics.  Although I have that CD and, I think, have even heard the piece at least once before in concert, it isn’t among Williams’ most familiar works and I doubt I would have recognized it without looking in the concert program.  The segment then concluded with Olympic Spirit, Williams’ composition for the 1988 Summer Olympics.  This last piece was accompanied by a video montage from the 2008 games, shown on the Bowl’s large screens.

The next selection was a suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is my favorite of John Williams’ film scores.  Even though I’ve heard his standard concert suite performed live quite a few times before, I always am glad when it is included in the program at one of his concerts.  For this performance, it was accompanied by a somewhat oddly chosen video montage that implied that the primary story arc of the film was the progression from the abduction to the eventual return of Barry, the little boy played in the film by Cary Guffey.  In fact, Williams’ spoken introduction to the piece also pretty much explained it that way.  I think this is a somewhat odd interpretation of the film, although I guess it makes a certain amount of sense as the concert suite most prominently features the abduction music and the finale music from the landing of the mothership.

This was followed by "Flight to Neverland" from Hook, one of Williams’ more rousing and soaring themes.  This isn’t one of his best known scores (I noticed a few people around me searching their programs to identify it), but I’ve noticed that this theme seems to have become one of his favorite concert pieces.  I thought the placement was particularly good here, providing a somewhat more melodic and upbeat interlude after the somewhat darker and very complex Close Encounters music.

The first half of the concert ended with a suite of music from Williams’ newest score, this summer’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  The suite included two of the main themes from the film, "The Adventures of Mutt", which accompanied portions of the big truck chase and sword fight late in the film, and "Irina’s Theme", the primary theme for the film’s villain.  These were then followed by a full performance of the familiar "Raiders March", which is essentially a concert version of the end-title suite from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Williams opened the segment with a short introduction that talked a little bit about how the themes fit into the film as well as a bit about how they were going to be presented.  Surprisingly, he also gave away one fairly major spoiler from the new film, but it was one that has been discussed enough that I suspect even those in the audience that hadn’t seen the film probably already knew it.

During the first selection the video screens only showed various close-ups of the orchestra, but film clips were used during both "Irina’s Theme" and "Raiders March".  The former has a musical style that somewhat brings to mind the scoring of classic film noir, which was underscored by the use of a montage of images of femme fatales from classic films.  The montage did include quite a few images of Cate Blanchett as Irina as well as a few quick shots of the other major female characters from the Indiana Jones films (I especially thought the inclusion of Kate Capshaw in this montage was a bit of a stretch), but most of the clips really were pretty disconnected from what was playing and the montage seemed pretty unnecessary.  The film clips over the "Raiders March" were all from the first three Indiana Jones films, so they obviously were a much better fit.  I did find it a bit unusual that they didn’t use any clips from the new film in that montage, though.

After the intermission, the orchestra opened the second half with Williams’ arrangement of "Hooray for Hollywood!", which also incorporates bits of "There’s No Business Like Show Business".  I’ve heard this arrangement many times before (I think it was originally done for The Boston Pops) and it made a good introduction for the tribute to MGM musicals that dominated the second half.  It is a very peppy, upbeat arrangement that effectively got the audience into the right mood for what was to come.

Williams then introduced Stanley Donen, the famed director/choreographer of numerous musicals for MGM during the 1950s and 1960s.  The orchestra provided live accompaniment to a series of dance numbers from Donen’s films (with the video portion shown on the Bowl’s giant screens), each introduced in a semi-interview by Donen and Williams.  At age 84, Donen is still very spry and sharp and proved himself a charming and amusing storyteller.  Right at the beginning, Williams noted that his own early career had included playing piano on the scores to some of Donen’s films and the two definitely had the rapport that suggested a long-time association.  This led to Williams showing very genuine admiration for Donen, but without ever coming off as fawning or awe-struck. 

The first featured number was "You’re All the World To Me" from Royal Wedding, which accompanies Fred Estaire’s famous gravity-defying dance on the walls and ceiling of the room.  Donen wisely introduced the number by simply describing it and how it fit into the film, holding off on the explanation of how it was filmed (a statically-mounted camera in a room that was inside a giant wheel) for after the audience had already seen the sequence.  It was particularly interesting hearing the explanation for how this was accomplished with 1950s technology, with Donen noting that one of the biggest challenges being that there were no remote-operated cameras in that time, meaning that they had to figure out how to strap down a camera operator in such a way that he could still run the camera and not get overly sick.  A short computer simulation video was used to demonstrate the technique used for the filming, although Donen seemed a bit irritated that they showed it before he was ready for them to do so.

The next number was "Bless Your Beautiful Hide", which accompanies the elaborate barnyard dance sequence from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  This is the only one of the featured numbers that featured more than one or two dancers, basically showcasing choreography of a larger scope than the other featured numbers.  Donen’s introduction to this sequence talked a bit about the decision to use dance to illustrate the country brothers’ challenge against the townsmen for the girls’ affections.  He mentioned that it was a tough sell to convince the producers that dance could be a very athletic and manly activity.  He was pretty blunt as he explained that the producers had told him outright that they feared audiences would assume the brothers were gay.  The basic implication was that Donen saw this as a pretty key film in its role of changing some of the public viewpoint towards dance.

This number, in particular, really emphasized both the skills of the orchestra and Williams’ skill as a conductor as they were able to make the synchronization of live music to filmed dance appear almost effortless.  Even Donen made a point of specifically calling attention to the sheer difficulty of what was being accomplished.  I’ve seen orchestras play film scores live to scenes before, but it is hard to even imagine the precise amount of timing needed to synchronize to dance and still have it work.  Williams commented that he had to watch the scenes pretty much frame-by-frame in order to work plan out the performances.

The next three numbers all came from Donen’s fairly extensive collaboration with Gene Kelly.  The first, and probably least well-known, was "I Like Myself" from It’s Always Fair Weather.  This dance number is especially notable because Kelly performs it entirely on roller skates.  Donen explained that Kelly was already an accomplished skater and that Donen had been searching for an excuse to let him use that skill in a film.  He finally decided that it would work ok here since they could basically suggest that Kelly’s character was in such a happy mood that he just forgot that he was wearing the skates.  Donen admitted that was a stretch, but it was a fun sequence.

Next was "The Worry Song" from Anchors Away, the well-known dance sequence featuring Kelly and Jerry the mouse from the Tom & Jerry cartoons.  Donen’s introduction for this one was a story I had heard before, but it was still fun to hear him tell it.  He talked about how the original idea was for the cartoon character to be Mickey Mouse instead of Jerry.  Louis Mayer was able to arrange a meeting with Donen and Walt Disney, but the answer ultimately was that Mickey doesn’t appear in movies for MGM.  One other interesting tidbit from the intro was that Donen himself danced Jerry’s part as the live-action model for the animators to use.  He said that the sequence ultimately took about a year to complete, which was something of a point of contention with MGM as the executives were not too happy to be sitting on an otherwise completed film that they couldn’t release.

The last number of Donen tribute was the title song from Singin’ In the Rain, almost certainly the most famous sequence that he ever directed.  In his introduction, Donen said that he very frequently is asked what town the sequence was shot in and always has to explain that it was actually filmed on the backlot at MGM Studios (which is now Sony Studios) in Culver City.  The sequence was shot during daylight hours (cheaper to light that way) during a typically dry and warm August.  One complication was that they would typically lose water pressure for the rain-generating machinery by early-afternoon as local residents started watering their lawns.  Donen also talked about the overall complexity of the sequence, including the fact that they had to even carefully measure the depth and positioning of every pothole in order to ensure that every splash was just right.  He did give me some new appreciation for an already very familiar scene.

After the performance of Singin’ In the Rain, Donen left the stage, but quickly returned for a curtain call after the enthusiastic ovation from the audience.  At that point, Williams then stated that he had received a call from Warren Beatty telling him that it would be wrong to have Donen there without asking him to dance.  That was a sufficiently odd bit of name dropping that I can’t help but assume it was true.  The orchestra then played a bit more of the tune to Singin’ In the Rain as Donen danced a few steps.  It wasn’t an awful lot, but it was a pretty impressive performance for someone Donen’s age and the audience certainly got a huge kick out of it.  After that, Donen left the stage again and that part of the program was over.

Williams has long had an obvious affection for solo violin in his music (at least dating back to his work on the film version of Fiddler on the Roof) and, in recent years, his concerts have pretty consistently included at least one piece intended to showcase that instrument.  This year’s concert included a performance of the violin arrangement of Williams’ theme for the remake of Sabrina, with concertmaster Bing Wang expertly playing the solo.  For the film, this piece was actually written to feature a solo piano instead of a violin, but Williams had created this arrangement for the "Cinematic Serenade" CD that he did with Itzhak Perlman a few years back.  It was nice hearing this somewhat less-common arrangement of a piece that isn’t heard all that often anyway.  A little bit of added poignancy came from the recent death of Sabrina director Sydney Pollack, which Williams alluded to but wisely didn’t dwell on in his introduction.

The main program ended with a tribute to the films of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, with the orchestra accompanying a film that Williams indicated had been created for a recent tribute event (I don’t recall what organization).  This medley included the most familiar themes from Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  In his introduction, Williams noted that the film clips (and music) for Raiders would be at least partially a repeat of the performance that closed the first half of the concert, but he felt the audience would still enjoy the tribute.  Since these are probably his most popular works, the sequence was certainly a crowd pleaser.

I may seem like a bit of a party-pooper here, but I did have one big complaint about this segment.  As has now become commonplace during these concerts, a sizeable number of people in the audience started waving around toy lightsabers during the Star Wars portion of this medley.  I know that is something of a crowd pleaser, but I think it ends up being a serious distraction from the music and I’d, quite honestly, be really happy if the Hollywood Bowl would start banning them at the concert.  Basically, when they start up, so many people start focusing on them that it causes a lot of stirring and chatter.  At one point, I was even blinded for a bit when someone across the aisle took a flash photo.  I realize that there are a fair percentage of people at these concerts that are there because they are Star Wars fans, but I would really like to get back to where the fan-behavior takes a backseat to the music.

The Lucas/Spielberg tribute was the last of several segments of the concert that included film clips on the video screens.  This has become a pretty common element to the concerts since the screens were added during the refurbishment of the Bowl a couple years ago, but it is something that I have mixed feelings about.  Unquestionably, the screens were essential to the wonderful Stanley Donen sequence and I also felt that the Olympic clips used during "Olympic Spirit" were very welcome.  I also definitely appreciated the screens during Williams introductions and the interview segments with Donen as well as various solo performances.  Before the screens were there, use of binoculars was usually necessary to see those types of things effectively and the screens work much better.

I’m less enthusiastic about the use of film clips during the various movie score performances.  While film scores are obviously originally written to go along with the film’s visuals, these are typically concert suites and the clips shown on the screen aren’t generally the exact ones that were intended to be synchronized to the music that is playing.  I suppose that the use of clips might make the performances a bit more accessible to the casual fans, but as someone that is used to listening to film scores separate from the films, I find the clips to sometimes be a bit of a distraction.  As a specific example, I particularly enjoy listening to the music from Close Encounters in concert as the music can provide a particularly emotional experience for me when I am fully focused on the performance with minimal distractions.  I found that to be lessened quite a bit due to the film clips, which are extremely difficult to ignore and take some of the attention away from the music. 

Williams usually includes a few encores after the end of the announced program.  The specific encores have generally gotten a bit predictable, but were less so this year since the usual ones (E.T., Raiders, and Star Wars) had already been performed as part of the main program.  He still didn’t have a hard time coming up with familiar pieces from well-known scores for this year’s encores, though. 

The first was "The Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back, which is probably the 2nd most recognizable Star Wars theme after the Main Title music.  The second encore was an extended arrangement of "Marion’s Theme" from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  In his introduction, Williams indicated that the arrangement used was done for Crystal Skull, although it still seemed to be pretty clearly a concert arrangement and this version wasn’t on the soundtrack CD either.  While portions of the theme had been heard as part of the earlier "Raiders March" performances, it was still fun to hear this extended version.  Finally, the concert ended with a performance of the very familiar march from Superman: The Movie.

While I always leave these concerts with a bit of a wish that Williams would dip a bit deeper into his rich history of film scores, I still do thoroughly enjoy hearing the familiar works and the Stanley Donen appearance and tribute was an absolute treat.  This was one of the best of the many John Williams concerts I have attended.

One Response to “John Williams: A Hollywood Legend (Concert Review)”

  1. Tim Castro says:

    Hey Jeff! Thanks for the thorough review of the John Williams concert. It sounds like it was a great show. I was planning on attending myself, but then Sara and I made last-minute plans for a weekend getaway to San Diego.

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