The Film Music of John Willams (Concert Review)

Hollywood Bowl – September 2, 2005

A concert review by Jeffrey Graebner

John Williams conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a film music concert at the Hollywood Bowl has been an annual summer tradition for me ever since I moved to Southern California in 1996. The Friday, September 2, 2005 concert featured a good mix of selections from Williams’ own film scores as well as a few selections from other celebrated film composers.

Including a couple summers where Williams conducted multiple concerts, this was the 11th concert of his that I have attended at the Bowl. Adding a couple earlier concerts with the Boston Pops as well as one concert of mainly non-film compositions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, this was the 14th time that I have seen Williams conduct a live concert. I’ve been a film score enthusiast since I was around 10-years-old, with Williams’ compositions being important to establishing and continuing that preference.

As is typical of Williams’ Hollywood Bowl concerts, this one featured a good mix of his extremely well-known selections as well as a few that will be very familiar to film score enthusiasts, but probably not to the more mainstream audiences that make up the bulk of the attendees. It came as no surprise that the program was dominated by his scores to films by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but there were a few less widely recognized selections, including the welcome inclusion of some works by other film composers.

As with most concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, this one got off to a patriotic start with a performance of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was then well complemented by a performance of The Liberty Fanfare, the concert piece that Williams wrote to commemorate the re-dedication of The Statue of Liberty following its refurbishment in the late 1980s. Either this piece and/or one of Williams’ Olympic themes are usually included even when the remainder of the concert is all film music. This is a very rousing and inspirational piece that helps to quickly pull the audience into the concert. These two opening pieces were the only non-film compositions included in the concert.

A definite shift in tone came next as, without any commentary, Williams transitioned into a pair of suites illustrating opposite views of alien visitation. First was a suite from Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film that featured one of the most famous, and my personal favorite, Williams’ scores. While this was definitely not the first time I had heard a suite of music from this film performed at one of the concerts, it is always a very welcome inclusion.

The highly melodic, almost magical tones of the Close Encounters theme were then followed by the much darker and foreboding music from Spielberg’s film of War of the Worlds, which was released earlier this summer. This was Williams’ first time conducting music from this score in concert and, while it was very interesting to hear, I tend to doubt that it is going to become a concert staple. The exciting, action-oriented cue “Escape from the City” seems more likely to be used as an occasional change-of-pace interlude in future concerts than the very dark, downright mournful “Epilogue”, which was also featured.

After this segment, Williams addressed the audience for the first time during the concert giving a brief acknowledgement and expression of sympathy regarding the tragic impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and other areas of the gulf coast. In a well-chosen turn of phrase, he brought a little bit of musical context to the tribute by expressing a hope that “the saints would soon go marching home again.”

He then introduced a tribute to the great film composers Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, and Elmer Bernstein, all of whom passed away in 2004. He very effectively personalized his relationship to all of them by telling how, early in his career, he had played piano under each of them. The orchestra then performed Goldsmith’s theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Raksin’s theme from Laura, and Bernstein’s theme from The Magnificant Seven. These pieces are easily the most familiar compositions by each composer and that they are so instantly recognizable likely helped the non-enthusiasts in the audience to connect immediately with the music, even if they had not previously been familiar with the composers. Of course, each is also an outstanding work and it is always a pleasure to hear them performed.

Continuing with the tribute to great composers of the past, the first half of the concert concluded with Miklos Rozsa’s “Parade of the Charioteers” from Ben Hur, another familiar piece that many in the audience had likely never heard performed live before. Williams’ Hollywood Bowl concerts attract a lot of casual fans that are coming primarily to hear his most famous works and I have always admired his usual inclusion of at least one or two classic works from other composers in order to expose fine works of film music to a somewhat different audience.

After the intermission, the second half of the concert opened with a fun medley called “Monsters, Beauties, Heroes”, arranged by Williams. This medley opened with Max Steiner’s King Kong and Williams’ theme from Jaws. In one of the strangest transitions imaginable (which somehow worked), it then continued into the next segment with music from Casablanca by Max Steiner and Hugo Friedhofer’s music from An Affair to Remember. The final segment of the three-part medley then featured Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and then closed with Williams’ fanfare from Superman.

During a major refurbishment of the facility prior to the 2003 season, the Hollywood Bowl added large video screens. For most of the concert, it was used for close-ups of Williams and the orchestra, using a similar visual style to televised concerts such as PBS’ Evening at Pops. For “Monsters, Romance, and Heroes”, the screens instead featured a montage of movie stills appropriate to each segment. For “monsters”, the screens showed movie villains ranging from Lon Cheney’s Phantom and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Freddie Kruger and Hannibal Lecter. The “beauties” segment showed leading ladies from Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe to Nicole Kidman and Meg Ryan. Finally the “heroes” were as wide ranging as Errol Flynn as Robin Hood to Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. The segment closed with an image of Christopher Reeve as Superman as Williams’ famous fanfare concluded, bringing a thunderous ovation from the crowd.

After this amusing opening, Williams next led the orchestra in a lengthy suite from his score to Far and Away. While the film, which I consider to be somewhat underappreciated, was not the hit that was expected from a big-budget epic directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, the score holds up very well and has remained a staple of Williams’ concerts. The Irish-inspired melodies and sweeping orchestral passages provide for very energetic live performances.

In several recent concerts, Williams has used a somewhat more sedate arrangement of the Far and Away themes featuring solo violin, which was created for the “Cinema Serenade” album that Williams recorded with Yo Yo Ma. While that arrangement is very well-done, I was pleased that Williams chose to return to the original film’s full orchestra arrangements for this concert. For live performances at a venue the size of the Hollywood Bowl, I simply believe that the film’s arrangements are more effective.

During the second half of the concert, the orchestra was joined on stage by a full choir, identified in the program as the Cal State Fullerton University Singers. The choir first joined into the performance with the next selection, “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” from Williams’ score to Spielberg’s Amistad. This stirring work features the choir singing lyrics in the African Mende language accompanied by a full orchestral accompaniment. This is a very powerful piece even in the film and on the soundtrack CD and it is really quite remarkable performed live. While the film is not one of Spielberg’s most popular or best-reviewed efforts, it is a very good thing that this piece has remained in Williams’ concert repertoire.

The next selection was the theme from Williams’ Oscar-winning score to Spielberg’s highly-acclaimed film Schindler’s List. The orchestra’s first-chair violinist, Bing Wang, was the soloist. While a large, outdoor venue like the Hollywood Bowl isn’t the perfect venue for this sad, reverent piece, it still managed to retain a very large portion of its power. More any other of Williams’ compositions, this one seems to hold a very strong connection to the film and its subject, which is reflected in the generally highly respectful reaction of the audience during live performances. The nature of the venue does result in a bit of background noise (whispering, people moving around, rustling of food and beverage containers, etc.) that pretty much completely came to a halt during this portion of the concert.

After a couple heavier, more serious pieces, the concert then shifted to a series of pieces from the Star Wars films. Not surprisingly, this portion of the concert opened with “Battle of the Heroes”, the concert arrangement of the music that Williams wrote for the lightsaber duel at the climax of Revenge of the Sith, released earlier this summer. This dark, but exciting work very effectively uses the full orchestra and choir. It played very well live and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it shows up pretty regularly at film music concerts that include a choir.

Williams next went back to the original Star Wars trilogy for a performance of “Luke and Leia” from Return of the Jedi. This is one of the tenderest pieces from Williams’ scores for the series and it provided an effective bridge to the next selection, “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace, another dark, choral piece. “Duel of the Fates” has become one of the most familiar pieces in the series and I noticed that this was the point when some of the Star Wars fans in the audience pulled out toy lightsabers. This led me wonder, rather amusedly, if those fans had even realized that the previous two selections had also been from the series. While “Duel of the Fates” was the end of the announced program for the evening, Williams continued the Star Wars segment by featuring “Yoda’s Theme” from The Empire Strikes Back as the evening’s first encore.

For the past several years, the majority of Williams’ concerts have ended with encores of what are probably his three most famous pieces: “Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Main Title” from Star Wars, and “Flying” from E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial. The order sometimes varies from concert to concert, but the encores usually feature those three selections, which are always received very appreciatively by the audience. I do sometimes wonder if Williams could get away with varying the performance a bit by using the main title from one of the other Star Wars films and/or the end title from one of the Indiana Jones sequels, since the most familiar themes would still be included. It is amusing that “Raiders March” always generates two separate sets of applause, first from the portion of the audience that recognizes it from the beginning and then a second set from those that recognize the familiar melody, but not the introduction. Williams does have a tendency to milk the audience for as much applause as possible, through numerous curtain calls. That is pretty forgivable, though, since it is rather unusual for an orchestral conductor/composer to ever have the opportunity to generate that kind of audience response.

Overall, I think that Williams does a pretty effective job accommodating the desire of the mainstream audience to hear his most familiar music while also performing some of his less-known pieces and even exposing the audience to some classic works by other composers. I do wish that the Hollywood Bowl would start providing every patron with a free program (currently they charge $1) or Williams would identify each piece ahead of time in order to cut back on the whispering of “what is this from?” that typically can be heard whenever a less-familiar piece is performed.

As a film score enthusiast, I would love for these performances to dig even deeper into his vast catalog, but I also can easily understand the need to keep these concerts accessible to the audience. Other than the brand-new music from War of the Worlds and Revenge of the Sith, I had previously heard live performances of all of Williams’ compositions included in the concert, but obviously most attendees would not have been to as many of his concerts as I had been. Certainly, the music is good enough to warrant hearing it again and again.

Copyright 2005, Jeffrey Graebner

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