Happy 90th birthday John Williams!

On Tuesday legendary film composer John Williams turned 90 years old. His list of epic works is seemingly endless, including Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Jurassic Park and so on and he is still conducting and composing music for orchestras and movies today.

I’ve been a fan of John Williams for as long as I can remember and have been celebrating his 90th birthday milestone all week culminating in travelling to my birthplace in Melbourne to watch a free concert of his music with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

The concert, An Evening of John Williams, marked my first attendance at the outdoor Sidney Myer Music Bowl, made famous through the yearly Carols by Candelight. I arrived early, before the gates opened, and when they did I snagged the perfect seat right in the middle under the shelter and level with the conductor.

The main concert was preceded by the Melbourne Youth Orchestra performing classical works by Mendelssohn, Khachaturian and Vortex by an Australian composer whose name I didn’t catch. They ended with a rousing suite from Pirates of the Caribbean, which I really enjoyed, but illustrated how one-dimensional many of Zimmer & Co’s compositions are with a lack of polyphonic melodies.

Finally it was time for the main event. The crowds stretched all the way up the hill, although I thankfully had nobody either side of me. The compere for the night was academic, host of ABC Classic FM’s Screen Sounds and member of my favourite podcast, Art of the Score, Dr Dan Golding. I’ve been listening to Dan all the past week as he has been hosting a daily program devoted to John Williams at midday on ABC Classic FM.

The conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was Jessica Gethin. This was my first time listening to her conduct, so I was looking forward to it. My favourite Nicholas Buc was busy conducting another John Williams concert in Adelaide on Friday and Saturday nights. I was desperate to get to the Friday session but wasn’t permitted to drive to Adelaide by “The Boss”.

The show opens with the main title suite from Star Wars. It could not be any other way and I am immediately transported back to my childhood, a long time ago but not very far away.

I had tears in my eyes with the rendition of Saving Private Ryan, the live performance conjuring even more emotion from remembering the fallen.

Similarly Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter movies is better live than recorded. The incredible complexity of the music can be observed in the frenetic activity of the string section, every note teased out when heard in person.

The Devils Dance from The Witches of Eastwick is another complex layered piece that I gather many in the audience were sadly unfamiliar with, the music jumping into unexpected harmonies. The percussion section was incredible and I’m not even sure what some of those instruments making the weird sounds are called. I have never seen this music performed live before and I loved it.

The Chairman’s Waltz is one of my less enjoyed tracks from one of my favourite Williams albums, Memoirs of a Geisha, but it showcased the solo virtuoso talents of concertmaster Dale Barltrop and the chief cellist.

The session ended with ET’s Adventures on Earth. Unfortunately, this performance seemed a tad too slow for my liking, which detracted a bit from one of my favourites. The music of ET always brings back memories of a childhood longing to return to Melbourne.

The concert restarted after the interval with The Olympic Spirit, music written for NBC’s coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. It is my favourite of all of Williams’ Olympic themes and I have written before here about memories of listening to it on radio during the games, not knowing who it was by.

Again, the pace was a bit off for the Olympic Spirit, the interpretation a bit too leisurely.

Pacing was not an issue for Schindler’s List, again featuring violin solos by Barltrop. The music made me imagine elegies not just for victims of the Holocaust, but all the other genocides in the past and future. Who will write for them?

The music returned to a frenetic pace in Hook: Flight to Neverland, a wonderful score but one I struggle to associate with significant events in my life. The MSO’s performance is lively and loud.

My favourites for the night are the two pieces from The Empire Strikes Back: Yoda’s Theme, which is music for Melbourne in my mind, and The Imperial March. The Empire Strikes Back is the first movie I watched in a cinema and that was here in Melbourne. That music is part of me and the MSO did it justice.

The elegant then dramatic Main Theme from Jurassic Park followed. I suspect that the brass section was a little weary by this stage.

The penultimate piece was supposed to be a surprise, but I saw it on the notes. John Williams’ Birthday Variations dances between the different sections of the orchestra, playfully sounding out a minor version of the theme before finally coming together with the rousing major tune. Fantastic stuff!

The night ends with the Raiders March and a standing ovation from the crowd. When Dan Golding asked how many members of the orchestra discovered an interest in music through John Williams about half their hands went up. Most of the crowd put up theirs and it showed in the appreciation they gave to the orchestra.

An Evening of John Williams was a brilliant way to celebrate his ninety years. I’m so glad I made the effort to attend.

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