Cinematic: The John Williams Birthday Party

Question: What instrument does a Wookies play?

Answer: A viola. As does Emperor Palpatine.

Meanwhile the Jedi play violins and the sharks and the dinosaurs the double bass. They respond better to low frequencies.

Where did I learn these “facts”? In the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Cinematic concert devoted to the music of John Williams, in the year of his 90th birthday. The orchestra are young in comparison; 75 years old this year.

Being the devoted John Williams fan that I am, I travelled up to Brisbane from Sydney just to attend. I am very grateful I did, for what a show it was!

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre is a fine venue, the concert hall dominated by a huge pipe organ. Under the magical lighting and on to the smoky stage marched an assortment of characters. Or rather musicians dressed as pirates and students of Hogwarts, sharks, dinosaurs and their victims, aliens from flying saucers and from a galaxy far, far away. How they performed in these costumes, I have no idea, but perform they most certainly did.

As conductor and good friend (well, he replies to my messages on social media) Nicholas Buc said, “John Williams provided the soundtrack to many of our lives,” and indeed this is very true for myself. Each of the pieces performed has formed a part of my history and heritage.

Beginning with the Superman March could not be more appropriate. QPAC sits in Southbank, which back in Australia’s bicentennial year hosted Expo 88. At night during the World Expo, as they set off fireworks over the river and orchestra would perform the music live, one the pieces being Superman. It was probably the first time I had heard Williams’ music performed live by an orchestra.

The Love Theme from Superman followed. As Buc noted, it goes through six key changes as it flows throughout the orchestra.

The trumpet phrasing of the JFK theme differed from the recording and unfortunately the performer stumbled on the second note, though he quickly recovered. There were a few other such mistakes from the brass section during the concert, but I have come to realise that this is more evidence of the demands that Williams places on this part of the orchestra than a lack of ability by the performers themselves.

The Shark Theme from Jaws is very dramatic and a lot of fun, especially when you have an inflatable shark threatening the conductor!

I was one of five people to put their hands up to say they’d actually watched Spielberg’s movie 1941. The March from 1941 is loud and energetic big brass band music designed for the failed comedy, good fun music in its own right.

The music to Schindler’s List couldn’t be more of a contrast. Concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto performed the violin solos flawlessly, the music bringing tears to my eyes, embodying the pain and suffering of the Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of those pieces that always sounds better performed live than recorded. The complex dissonance from the different sections of the orchestra resolves into beautifully satisfying harmonies as music becomes the language of universal communication.

I will admit that if I wanted to showcase some of John Williams’ smaller, lesser known, scores then Angela’s Ashes would not have been my first choice (maybe The Book Thief or The River). However, in listening to it I could hear the poverty and struggles of the characters, though I have neither read Frank McCourt’s book or watched the movie. Pity the audience could not keep quiet.

Now came the piece I was really here for. The first time it has been performed I Australia (aside from last night and me, badly, on the electronic keyboard at home): The Slave Children’s Crusade from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. So rarely is it performed that the conductor’s score was handwritten by Williams himself!

In another “soundtrack to your life” moments, I used to love this piece when I was a teenager growing up in Queensland, so it was very appropriate to hear it performed live here. It is the kind of music that drives you forward, makes you want to achieve a goal. The concert version includes the Chinese pentatonic Short Round’s Theme in addition to the “Indian” inspired main Slave Children sequence.

Finally, before the interval, the soaring Flying Theme from E. T. the Extraterrestrial. Truly an exhilarating way to end off the first half.

After the interval we are back in the air with the Flight to Neverland from Hook. It is a mixture of childish fun with strong melody.

The trilogy of flight ends with a grounding in The Terminal, one of my favourite “small” Spielberg movies, the music a soundtrack for my own international travels. Principal clarinet Irit Silver was note perfect as the music danced between her solo performance and that of the rest of the orchestra. Definitely one of my favourites of the concert.

Another one of my most loved John Williams themes is that of Jurassic Park. That powerful, elegant “dinosaur” theme always evokes that moment on screen when the characters and the audience first see that dinosaurs live again. The performance captured it perfectly.

Since the pandemic started we’ve had two trips to Japan cancelled on us and are probably about to have our next one cancelled too. Memoirs of a Geisha provided the soundtrack to my most cherished of all Japanese adventures and it was such a pleasure to hear the performance of Sayuri’s Theme. Although, I have seen it performed live twice before, I’m not sure I have ever heard this beautiful variation of it, with the woodwinds coming to the fore.

Rather than a full blown performance of Harry Potter music, the orchestra just played Hedwig’s Flight, allowing us to concentrate on the delicious complexity of the string and celesta sections. Again, this is music that is better live than recorded, especially for the visuals of fingers flying on the strings.

As we come towards the end it’s time for old favourites, such as the Raiders March. I first borrowed the soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark from our library in Central Queensland, so it was good to hear it played here.

Princess Leia’s Theme was apparently John Williams’ first score piece written for the concert hall. I remember buying a cassette of the soundtrack to Star Wars from a shop in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall, where I took a walk today. More than just memories, the piece has taken up a new significance as a memorial to Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, the heart of the Star Wars movies. Simply lovely.

According to the program, the concert ends with the startlingly complex and exciting The Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back. Though I’ve heard it performed live to the movie this was my first time seeing it played as a standalone piece and, boy, was it a thrill!

If the concert had ended there, I would have gone home perfectly satisfied. But I knew there would be an encore and guessed correctly that it would be the Main Title from Star Wars (actually a mix of the start and end credits). You can’t have a John Williams concert without Star Wars!

But, as they said in the Demtel commercials, wait, there’s more! Nicholas Buc strides in from the wings waving a red lightsaber as a baton and waves it around as he conducts The Imperial March to cheers of delight.

And yes, there are steak knives, or at least steel drums, as one final Happy Birthday present remains, an orchestral version of the Cantina Band from Star Wars. The audience gets involved, clapping along with the entire orchestra.

It is the perfect way to end a perfect concert. I have had an absolute blast at this concert and it looks like everyone, in the audience and the orchestra, has too. Absolutely worth the trip up from Sydney and I hope to be back. Once more, happy birthday to the maestro and thank you to the QSO!

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