The Music of John Williams: A 90th Birthday Celebration

Yes, that’s right, another John Williams birthday concert! Like me, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra can’t seem to get enough of him. To be fair, it’s been almost five months since their last birthday party for him, even if I’ve had another only a month ago. So why did I go to all this effort again to attend?

  1. It’s John Williams music
  2. It’s the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
  3. There is a choir
  4. It’s hosted by Art of the Score.

The Art of the Score team are comprised of Andrew Pogson, Dan Golding (you may remember him from last time in Melbourne) and conductor Nicholas Buc (same guy from Brisbane). Aside from being Nice Blokes, they have a fantastic podcast on screen music that I’ve learned a lot from.

This was a concert with a difference. No costumes like the QSO in Brisbane. Instead the Art of the Score hosts provided analysis of some of the tricks that Williams uses to make his music so memorable and appropriate for the movies it scores.

After the welcome to country, the concert begun with the Peter Gunn Theme, a piece of music not composed by John Williams (it was Henry Mancini’s), but on which he played as a pianist when he was getting his start in Hollywood.

We then leap into the program proper, underpants fully on display, with the March from Superman.

The next piece garnered Williams his first Oscar, but again was not originally composed by Williams, instead adapted from Jerry Bock’s musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It involved some very fine solo violin playing by concertmaster Sophie Rowell. Fiddler on the Roof may have been my first exposure to John Williams as my Dad was very much into musicals and that one in particular.

The hosts tease us with an example of a John Williams fanfare, The Mission, or as we know it in Australia, the Channel 7 News theme. It actually belongs to NBC America, but I already knew all this because I am a Real Fan (and not of Channel 7).

It is time for the MSO Chorus. The Call of the Champions was composed for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and features the lyrics Citius , Altius, Fortius – the Olympic motto “Faster, higher, stronger”. Stirring stuff!

A bonus not included in the program is Williams’ Americana for The Cowboys. I really like this piece and delighted to finally hear it performed live after missing out on attending the concert in Adelaide.

There is a bit of fun as different instrumentalists are tasked with playing combinations of five notes until, at last, we get the motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, it is a different motif, just two notes a semitone apart, that comprises the next piece: Jaws. No inflatable sharks attacking the conductor this time.

The Raiders March is another favourite. We all know how it goes!

Back to music lessons and the two components of a John Williams’ romantic theme, the opening major sixth and some shimmering underscore. We get short examples, including Across the Stars but it is the lovely (they’re all lovely, let’s face it) Princess Leia’s Theme that has a full treatment, taking me back a long time ago in this city when the only Star Wars television program was the never-to-be-talked-about-again Summer Special.

Melbourne’s weather is almost cold enough for Home Alone as the choir sing the carol Somewhere in My Memory and we can hear the underscore played out in full. The acoustics are very fine and the orchestra sound clear in Hamer Hall.

The first session rounds out with the theme to Jurassic Park, but this time with a full choir, something I’ve never heard live before. It is one of my favourite John Williams pieces.

After the interval we are back with Duel of the Fates, a truly epic choral piece that just calls for a choreographed Darth Maul on stage. It reminds me just how epic the much maligned Star Wars prequels actually were.

John Williams seems to have had a thing for ancient tree stories as Dual of the Fates was based on a Welsh trees poem translated into Sanskrit and he also composed The Five Sacred Trees, a bassoon concerto with movements from trees in Celtic mythology.

We then move on to tales of World War Two, with the theme to Schindler’s List and the Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan. The former features another violin solo from concertmaster Sophie Rowell, a bit different in interpretation from Natsuko Yoshimoto’s with the QSO. The Hymn to the Fallen makes use of the choir, the music reminding me of Autumn leaves in Canberra, which is where I first listened to the soundtrack.

There is a rearrangement on stage in preparation for some jazz, which is where John Williams started out. We have Tim Wilson (I hope I’ve got that right) on the solo saxophone, along with percussion out the front to play Catch Me If You Can. I wish it was the full theme as it is a score I really enjoy, but the performance is really enjoyable. I realise one reason I can never play in an orchestra is that I lack the ability to click my fingers, something that happens a lot in this piece!

The next jazz informed piece is truly insane. The Knight Bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a total riot, but somehow the action sounds a little muddy here in what must be a concert arrangement. Double Trouble is another piece from the same music, featuring the chorus singing words from Macbeth. This is a concert arrangement without the recorders and baroque feel.

We now learn about what goes into a John Williams flying theme, a really fascinating analysis of how he combines different sections of the orchestra to produce a sense of being propelled through the air. There is a short demonstration of the very complex Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter, followed by the wonderfully Flight to Neverland from Hook. Surprise, surprise, no Flying Theme from ET, but Hook is an excellent example for demonstrating all those components of orchestral flight.

Even more energetic, in fact, probably as orchestrally action packed you can get, is The Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back. It is truly demanding of the orchestra, but it is absolutely worth it.

The program officially ends with the Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars and it is perfect. This is the concert arrangement, which I haven’t heard for years performed live, if at all.

Naturally there is an encore. It’s the same as at Cinematic with Darth Buc waving his red lightsaber and conducting The Imperial March. And the same afterparty, the Cantina Band, only this time without audience participation and with the chorus singing along. It’s a fun way to end a very fun night.

Nicholas Buc and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

I’ve had a blast, I’ve learned new things and heard different interpretations of my favourites. It was definitely worth coming down to Melbourne for and I hope Maestro Buc will bring his concert to Sydney one day.

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