Friday, January 8, 2016

review - THE MUSIC OF JOHN WILLIAMS - Phoenix Symphony Orchestra

by Gil Benbrook

Some of the most iconic and instantly recognizable movie themes from the past forty years have all been written by one man, John Williams. The soundtracks for Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET have music that instantly brings the images of those films to life. Williams’ ability to compose musical themes that resonate with audiences while inherently serving the characters, settings and stories of each film sets him apart from his peers. This past weekend the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra presented two concerts of his film music and it was an exciting, thrilling and even magical experience. Many of my fellow concert goers were as equally impressed, with two standing ovations at the end of the concert.

The guest conductor for the two concerts was Stuart Chafetz. Having experience in conducting dozens of orchestras around the country, he proved to have complete command over the PSO. He also had an exciting connection not only with the material but also with his love for John Williams' music, something that was obvious when he spoke to the audience several times. His conducting of the orchestra was controlled but also playful at various times throughout the two hour show. He also made clear how impressed he is by the PSO with the times he commented on their skilled playing and also the numerous times when he made them stand and take a bow.

Williams has received 49 Oscar nominations, having won 5 times, and has composed the scores for over 100 films and tv shows. Williams has also written special compositions including the theme for the 1984 Olympics and the theme music for NBC News. So picking out material for a two hour concert would ultimately mean that some audience favorites might not be included as Williams' body of work is so extensive. But, with only one exception, Chafetz and the PSO managed to find an excellent balance with familiar Williams' movie themes as well as a couple of selections that an audience might not be that familiar with, but should be.

The concert included the following crowd favorites - the "Main Title" from Star Wars, the “March” from Superman, the "Theme" from Jaws, “Adventures on Earth” from ET, selections from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the theme from Jurassic Park. Every one of these pieces sounded to me like it could have come from the original recording that Williams made for the films, most of which he did with the London Symphony Orchestra. The highlight for me, and many others in the audience was a trio of three Star Wars selections that ended the concert. This trio included a stunningly played “Leia’s Theme,” the "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back and a rousing Star Wars Main Title.

Selections from his other film soundtracks were featured, including “Harry’s Wondrous World” from the first Harry Potter film and the “Flight to Neverland” from Hook. But other lesser known selections were included as well - the rousing "Overture" to The Cowboys, the “March” from 1941, a Suite from Far and Away and an impressively played “Viktor’s Tale” from The Terminal, that featured an impeccable clarinet solo from Alex Laing. However, Williams' Oscar winning score for Schindler's List was the only piece I thought should have been included, since it not only won him an Oscar but also is one of his most personal and moving scores.  But even with this one misstep, it didn't detract from the overall enjoyment that I and about 1,000 other concert goers experienced.  The "Raiders March" from Raiders of the Lost Ark was served up as an encore to the very hungry audience.

The playing by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra throughout was superb. Williams' arrangements seem to draw equally upon the various parts of the orchestra; using the brass section for regal, triumphant notes; the strings for soaring elements; and specific instruments like the oboe, flute and French horn to portray a sense of longing. These last few instruments, plus a few others, were used most effectively to deliver a stunning "Leia's Theme" from Star Wars. But it is when all of the instruments come together, weaving in and out of each other where they truly resonate. This was evident in the playfulness of the March from 1941 and the terror that is instilled from just a few notes in the theme from Jaws.

The one clear message that came through in hearing selections from so many of his film scores was that Williams can pretty much write a theme or score for any genre or time period.  Whether it is the rousing old West aura that he easily establishes in the opening notes of The Cowboys, the Mideastern influenced sounds the clarinet and other instruments are able to convey in The Terminal, the sense of wonder and magic Williams is able to instill in E.T., Jurassic Park and Harry Potter, or the regal, triumphant sound of Superman, he can pretty much invoke any type of music necessary to have you connect with the films he scores or the event at hand.  Also, the themes Williams' writes are almost instantly recognizable within hearing just the first few notes.

I've actually seen Williams conduct his own music twice, both times were in the late 1980's and with the Boston Pops when he was their principal conductor, a position he held for 13 years. I saw him once in Boston and the other time at Carnegie Hall. At both concerts he conducted several of his own music pieces which was a pretty special thing to see and hear.

And for those who are interested, Williams' Five Oscar wins were for Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. and Schindler's List and his first win was for adapting the stage music for the film of Fiddler on the Roof.

”The Music of John Williams” with the Phoenix Symphony played two performances on January 2nd and 3rd, 2016 at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information for upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at

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