DSO – The Music of John Williams

It’s been a while since my last concert blog.  It’s also the end of the concert season for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.  For this film score fan, what better way to end a season than with the music of the maestro, John Williams?  There is no better way.  That’s not even a question worth entertaining.  Through Star Wars, Williams introduced me to film music, though the first album that I ever owned was Raiders of the Lost Ark.  This led me to discover more.  Through the enthusiasm he generated, I discovered more of his work, then other composers, and eventually the larger world of classical music by way of Disney’s Fantasia.  So you see, even Beethoven started for me as part of a film score.  Without Williams, none of this happens for me as it did.  I owe him everything.

I’ve attended these presentations of Williams’ score music before.  Indeed, the first DSO concert I ever attended was a set list of nothing but Star Wars music, hosted by Anthony Daniels, aka C-3PO.  Eventually this whole idea got bigger and became its own travelling series with orchestras across the world, Star Wars in Concert.  Meanwhile, the DSO simply rotated out the playlist, adding more of the maestro’s signature pieces and a few rarities, and sometimes adding in celebrated pieces from other legendary film composers: Mancini, Herrmann, Korngold, Steiner… the list just goes on.  Suffice it to say, this sort of thing is the highlight of my concert season.  Even the vaunted Beethoven, for whom I have undying respect and admiration, will take a backseat to this event… or at the very least, he’ll ride shotgun.  Seriously, how often do you get to hear the greatest film music ever composed in a way that transcends the movie it accompanies?  Besides… Beethoven always finds his way into my schedule.  Always.  It can’t be otherwise.

Usually when the DSO performs Williams, there’s an obligatory visit by the local chapter of the 501st, and sometimes from the Rebel Legion and/or the Mandalorian Mercs.  We had no such representation this time.  Instead, the theme for the evening revolved around Jurassic Park.  As you can see, just as in the original park, they spared no expense…

Take a closer look.  There’s actually a performer in there.  Keeping in mind it was 98 degrees outside and muggy as all hell as the tropical storm approached, I can only imagine that guy was suffering.  Consummate professional, that one.

So let’s talk about the performance.  It’s only right to start out with the playlist, so we have a common frame of reference.

“March” from Superman
“The Cowboys Overture” from The Cowboys
The Shark Theme from the Suite from Jaws
Born on the 4th of July
“Harry’s Wondrous World” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“The Flight from Neverland” from Hook
Theme from Schindler’s List
“Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick

Intermission

“Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Theme from Jurassic Park
“Escapades” for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra from Catch Me If You Can
Theme from Angela’s Ashes
Star Wars Suite:
–“The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)”
–“Princess Leia’s Theme”
–“Main Title / Blockade Runner / End Title”

As you can see, the playlist is entirely John Williams this time around.  As you can also no doubt see, there are some pieces notable by their absence.  Let’s face it, it’s beyond difficult just to cram in all of the top hits, to say nothing of exploring the rest of the man’s catalog.  Knowing what’s ahead (more at the end of this blog), and knowing that they’ve omitted in the past, there is no representation of Indiana Jones here.  I know, I’m always bummed about that as it’s my personal fave.  A bigger surprise is that E.T. didn’t make the list this time.  This one’s usually a showstopper, and it’s largely acknowledged to be Williams’ best score.  Also, “Hagrid’s Theme” from Harry Potter wasn’t picked this time.  They went for a different piece from that score.  I’m sure that some of you will be able to lament one of your favorites missing from the lineup too, or some lesser-knowns that would have been fun to include.  This is just the nature of the beast.  But… there are no bad pieces, only missed opportunities to hear other good ones.

Our conductor was Jeff Tyzik, who has conducted for Williams and other soundtrack sets for the DSO in the past.  I admire the man’s enthusiasm.  He makes every opportunity to point out just how difficult this music truly is, and how easy the DSO makes it seem.  He also made it a point of saying something that I’ve heard him say before, and it’s truly the words I live by when it comes to appreciation film scores:

“Each piece of music performed here tonight stands on its own, independent of the film.  There is no film that will ever stand independent of its music.”

Really give that a think.  Have you ever tried to watch an entire movie without a soundtrack?  There are some films that pride themselves on that idea, and they’re almost always so low budget they simply couldn’t afford music.  The original Evil Dead is the first example that comes to mind, keeping in mind that was a high-end student film.  You can buy DVDs and Blu-rays where watching a movie with only the soundtrack score is an option, but you can never turn off the music.  Why is that, do you think?

Early in my life, soundtrack albums were how audiences relived the magic of film when we couldn’t make it back to the theater to see them again, or when they simply weren’t showing.  Home video was a fledgling and expensive medium when I was a kid.  John Williams’ usage of leitmotif — character themes — helps you to latch on to the storytelling dynamics within the music.  Even when the director is telling you what you think you should be seeing, Williams is telling you what’s really there.  He tells us what the characters feel, and sometimes why they feel it.  He tells us if the moment is ominous or playful.  He’s telling the characters when to hide, when to run, or when it’s ok to indulge in a little romance.  And if a character takes flight, you’re flying with them.  Strip a film of its music, and you’ve got a lifeless husk of light and shadow.  There are moments in a score where silence is the right musical choice, but that is also determined by the composer, if the director isn’t running roughshod and trusts the musical instincts of the one who knows best.  The collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams is one of the greatest partnerships in Hollywood history for a reason.  While these kinds of collaborations still exist, the very way movies are scored today has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, so as sad as it is to say, the majesty in play here is almost a lost art.  Simply put, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.  Well, they do, but not often.  You can count on one hand the number of composers that still operate the same way Williams does, and thank the Force he’s still composing for us.  When I was a kid, soundtracks were a thing.  The reason they were a thing is because of John Williams.  Before him, such things were limited affairs, usually consisting of popular songs.  Movies had scores, but you’d be hard-pressed to find those recordings.  Today, we have resources.  Today, even lost film scores are making a comeback, and classic scores that got a truncated album are now finding new expanded releases.  Even if Hollywood isn’t creating great film scores, other parts of the world are, and Hollywood’s yesteryears are making a comeback for appreciative audiences… like myself.

As you can imagine, I have plenty of thoughts to offer here, and I’ll try not to be too critical simply because I really did have a blast.  It’s just that I know the majority of these pieces so very well, so take any and all criticism here with a grain of salt and know that the nature of live performance is that there are always variations from expectation.  Also, and it’s always important to point this out, the DSO is a truly world class orchestra, one of the top five in the world right now.  The only way this night could truly have been better is if John Williams himself had been there, but as he only does performances on the East and West coasts these days, I’ll happily take the music, especially when the conductor clearly loves it as much as I do.

I beg your indulgence at this point because I’m going to talk about each and every piece in turn, so this is going to be a long one.

“March” from Superman

I was 4th row, just slightly right of center, in front of the violas.  And that means I could see for myself just how difficult their role was from the outset, because Superman is by no means an easy piece to play.  Even the ostinato part is grueling.  John Williams is one of those rare composers who not only does concerts, he has concert arrangements of his own works that vary slightly from what’s in the film and are often included on the soundtrack album.  This is one of them.  In fact, for the longest time, this was the only version you could get on the soundtrack, with the film version being reinstated when they finally released a full deluxe recording.  The fundamental difference between the two is how the piece opens.  There’s no prologue that slowly builds into march.  Instead, it opens with a stately fanfare of the main theme and then moves straight into the action.  It’s hard to argue with how well it works on a concert stage.  It’s also difficult not to grin like a monkey the moment it starts, especially when the piece is bound up so tightly with your life as to practically be a part of your DNA.

“The Cowboys Overture” from The Cowboys

This is one that I got introduced to back when I played in the band.  It’s from Williams’ pre-Jaws days, one of the oft-overlooked masterpieces of great themes for Westerns.   I’ll put it up there with How the West was Won and The Magnificent Seven in terms of soundtrack power.  According to the conductor, this film carries the distinction of being the one film where John Wayne dies on screen.  I’m going to challenge that with The Alamo; Wayne played Davy Crockett and died a spectacular death.  But enough about Wayne.  This piece of music is difficult in the extreme.  I look back and wonder what our band director was thinking, because we never got this piece up to full speed.  It was just way too difficult.  Leave it to the DSO to pull it off in the grand style.  I was blown away.

The Shark Theme from the Suite from Jaws

It’s only right to have Jaws in the playlist.  This is the film where Williams became a legend, it’s where the collaboration with Spielberg begins, and it’s what made Spielberg recommend him to George Lucas.  It’s one of the most famous themes of all time.  People who have never seen the movie (and should) know this piece of music.  It consists largely of two alternating notes, denoting a mindless killer coming right at you.  It’s the reason people were afraid to go into the water.  And there’s not a recording in the world that can compete with feeling the resonance of live sound churning through your body.  And the theme is more complex than just those two notes, which makes it all the more reason to appreciate the nuance of dread that Williams has crafted here.

And then the asshats that were supposed to be seated next to me showed up in the middle of this piece.  They apologized, but… GEEZ!  Whatever happened to shutting the doors until intermission to keep this sort of bullshit on a stick from happening?  Thankfully this was the one and only problem I had with the audience the entire night.  But I still have to get that off my chest.  It’s a pops program, but it’s still an orchestra concert, not a rock concert where nobody’s there to actually pay attention and appreciation the music.  Get a fucking clue, people.  Learn some etiquette before attending events that are clearly outside of your normal expectations.  *head/desk*

Born on the 4th of July

Principal trumpeter Ryan Anthony got his moment to shine here, standing to blast us with one of the most somber melodies Williams has ever written.  Williams has given us an entire catalog of Americana and patriotic themes over the years, and while this isn’t personally the one I’d have chosen, it’s easily as powerful as any of his others.  This one will make your blood run cold.  You know, because Jaws didn’t already do that.  But it demonstrates how to do that sort of thing with different emotions when you play them back to back like this.

“Harry’s Wondrous World” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

As previously mentioned, usually the piece chosen here is “Hagrid’s Theme,” the one everyone recognizes as the central Potter theme.  This piece is no less magical — you can still hear the twinkle all through this — but it’s considerably more upbeat and less mysterious after opening with a statement of what everyone would expect from “Hagrid’s Theme.”  I’m not a fan of Harry Potter, but I adore the music that Williams wrote for the first three films.  It’s one of his modern classics.  I’m going to come back to this when I comment on another piece a bit later.

“The Flight from Neverland” from Hook

I consider Hook to be in the “top tier” of Williams scores, alongside Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, and E.T.  I readily acknowledge some of his lesser known works are as good, if not better, than these, but these are the crowd pleasers for a reason.  Hook is right on that level as some of the greatest music Williams have ever given us.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s the primary reason to watch that movie, and that’s certainly no slight on the movie itself.

Theme from Schindler’s List

When Spielberg made this movie, he sent early rushes of it to John Williams so he could craft something as poignant as humanly possible for such a heavy topic.  He met Williams at the maestro’s house, and they took a walk.  Spielberg discussed what the film would entail, how it was to be approached, and Williams stayed silent.  When he finally spoke, he told Spielberg that he couldn’t do it.  “You need Mahler,” he told his friend.  “You need Bruckner.  You need Beethoven.”

Spielberg simply replied, “But Johnny… they’re all dead.  I need you.”  The rest, as they say, is history.

The violin solos for this film were written with Itzhak Perlman in mind, and it’s Perlman who performed them on the finished score.  That’s a tough act to follow.  The DSO’s co-concertmaster Nathan Olson proved himself to be more than up to the challenge.  Let me just tell you that I could see him crying through the violin, and he wasn’t the only one on that stage holding back tears.  I couldn’t hold back mine.  Olson got a well-deserved standing ovation.

“Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick

To lighten the mood, the first set ended with this little oddball piece that, if you’d never heard it before, you’d swear it was actually scored by Danny Elfman if not for subtle telltale bits of orchestration that reveal Williams’ fingerprints.  It’s a fantastic piece of music that is almost never played live.  And that’s a shame because not only is it truly fun, it’s got a hidden history to it.  You see, if you listen carefully, you’ll start to hear a theme develop that would become very well known to film fans: “Hagrid’s Theme” from Harry Potter.  Every composer in classical and film has done this, where they craft a theme and then come back later to develop it in full.  Beethoven himself did this many times with what would eventually become his “Ode to Joy” for his 9th Symphony.  I heard a few questions and concerned mutterings from an audience that doesn’t quite get this.

“Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

I beg a little forgiveness for what I’m about to say.  They opened the second set on the weakest piece, and it’s certainly not the fault of the music.  You see, this concert played to a packed house.  They even seated the audience on the raised tiers behind the stage… where the chorus should be so they could be a part of this particular theme.  On one hand, it was very interesting to hear “Duel of the Fates” without the chorus.  I could really listen to the instrumentation.  As a thought exercise, that’s one of those things that would intrigue me listening to such a version on my own, comparing and contrasting, listening to it on my own terms.  Thing is, that’s not how it’s written, I was unprepared (though I should have known up front as soon as I saw it on the set list), and it came across as noticeably missing that vital spark that makes this piece work.  Again I’ll reference Beethoven’s 9th.  Without the chorus, it comes across as cheap band music.  Same thing here.  The drama of the piece is in the vocals, conjuring doom and mysticism through Sanskrit syllables.  Without it, this piece is pretty empty.  So while it was very well played, it was, to my mind, still poorly executed.  To add salt in the wound, the tempo was just a bit too slow.

Theme from Jurassic Park

And then the DSO recovered in grand style with this one, which is another classic concert arrangement from the maestro’s pen.  Jurassic Park has two primary themes that speak to the majesty of the dinosaurs, before things go sideways for the human characters. This arrangement incorporates both of those pieces.  Again, one of those great “top tier” scores, and another one where there’s not a recording on the planet that can compete with the power of hearing it live.  They played it a bit too fast, but it still worked extremely well.

“Escapades” for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra from Catch Me If You Can

John Williams has a background in jazz.  The first score he ever worked on, he was a pianist on Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn.  Every now and again, he delivers a score that plays right into his jazz heart, and the result is always something extraordinary.  This is one of them.  This particular arrangement was in three movements, with Tim Roberts on alto sax and Doug Howard backing him up on vibraphone.  Nothing says jazz quite like vibes.  I don’t know what it is about it, but vibes change everything when you have them accenting the music.  It’s subtle, but oh-so cool.  Roberts is to be commended as well.  The sax has a bad reputation as a “sleazy” instrument.  It’s almost become a parody of itself, mostly because composers write it that way on purpose.  I hate to say this, but I can point to some of the Roger Moore era 007 soundtracks as prime examples of that.  When you have a world class player playing world class music from a world class composer, you get magic, no matter what the instrument is, and a piece like this redeems the sax from any of its transgressions.  For those looking for other such works, I highly recommend Michael Kamen’s Lethal Weapon scores (David Sanborn on sax, with Eric Clapton on guitar).  If you want more jazz from Williams, I’d also recommend The Adventures of Tintin.  Back on point, Roberts and Howard packed a punch on this one, and… yeah.  I never expected to hear this one live, and I wouldn’t trade the experience of it.

Theme from Angela’s Ashes

When Williams accepted the commission for this one, he did something he almost never does.  He read the book for inspiration.  Then he went and spoke with the author, Frank McCourt.  Whatever came from those experiences, he poured it into this music and held nothing back.  If you’ve heard Williams’ work on movies like Far and Away, you know he can play up to the quintessential (and even stereotypical) Irish sound.  He actively avoided that here, playing to a more universal level where the the music reaches into your chest cavity and grabs your heart.  This is another one I’d never have expected to hear live, and it packed a emotional punch.  Gorgeous piece of a work, lovingly played.

Star Wars Suite

So now we come to the end, to the showstopper that absolutely must be acknowledged by anyone putting together a Williams setlist.  To even think of omitting it these days is akin to blasphemy and would probably result in a riot.  Prove me wrong.

As with Superman and Jurassic Park, “The Imperial March” and “Princess Leia’s Theme” are concert arrangements that can be found on every version of the albums from the original releases to the expanded Special Editions.  “The Imperial March” is notorious for being one of the most difficult pieces in Williams’ lexicon to play just due to the key signature, to say nothing of the relentless pace.  It’s truly a theme worthy of the Dark Lord, where the orchestra has to rise to the demands of what’s put before it.  That’s probably why it’s quite possibly the most famous and beloved piece in the entire saga.  That, and it’s just a cool piece.  It was played with such perfection, I had to look around and see if Vader was anywhere in the room.  Don’t laugh.  It’s happened before, you see.  Last time, he showed up on the pipe organ with a full complement of Imperial stormtroopers lining the aisles.  Not this time…

“Princess Leia’s Theme”… this one was difficult for me.  Keeping in mind, the pump was already primed with Schindler’s List and Angela’s Ashes, and knowing how much of a blow it was to lose Carrie Fisher… well, you no doubt see where this is going.  Confession time.  I’ve not listened to this piece at all since she passed.  I haven’t allowed myself to do so because I knew that when I did, I’d finally allow myself to acknowledge her absence.  Somehow that felt wrong at the time.  I should have done this months ago, in the privacy of my home.  The moment the flutes opened the piece, I knew this was going to be difficult.  As soon as the French horn started the solo, it was a struggle to hold it in.  By the time it Olson finished out on the violin, I was a bit of a mess.  “So long, Princess…”

I had just enough time to recover during the applause before the opening blast of the “Main Title.”

Every orchestra has a particular sound.  The opening brass blast sounds different on each of the films if you know what to listen for.  The London Symphony Orchestra recorded the first six, and it’s consistent, but I can still tell what I’m hearing.  The Force Awakens was scored with a freelance orchestra in California, and you can tell.  As much as I love that score, the opening blast is a little weak, and it admittedly set the stage for my first few listening experiences before I just got used to it and moved on.  The Dallas Symphony Orchestra… all hail the power of a world class orchestra.  The brass nailed it, the grief moved aside, and I was pulled straight in.  “The Blockade Runner” is basically the music as it continues from the title crawl, following the Star Destroyer chasing down the Tantive IV.  The way Williams has it arranged, it follows through nicely and jumps straight into the “End Titles.”  In the B-section of the “End Titles,” there’s another, more fully-powered arrangement of “Princess Leia’s Theme” (the concert arrangement being a more intimate piece spotlighting solo performers).  My mind decides now is the time I should hear Yoda in my head.  “Death is a natural part of life.  Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force.  Mourn them do not.  Miss them do not.”  By the time this shorter version of the theme was over, I felt like I’d finally grieved properly.  Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t, but it’s a good start.  I didn’t really have time to assess as the music launched back into the “Rebel Fanfare” to close out the piece and the performance as a whole.  As one would expect, standing ovation, and rightfully so.  All in all, truly a night to remember.

The night didn’t end there.  We ended up at Red Robin for a late dinner.  I decided after all that emotional wringing my soul took back there, I needed to treat myself.  I haven’t had a root beer float in years.  When I ordered it, the waiter told me they were going to be dismantling and cleaning the ice cream machine very shortly, so the “bottomless” float option wasn’t going to happen.  Disappointing and understandable.  And that’s probably for the best.  Had I indulged, I would likely have made myself sick.  So I ordered something else, and as a surprise, the waiter brought my drink and a root beer float.  He told me the float was free, that he was counting it as someone else’s refill.  In all my years, I’ve never had that sort of thing happen before.  He got a good tip at the end, and damned if I didn’t rediscover the simple pleasure of a root beer float.  It’s a very good thing indeed I only had the one.

I returned home just as the storm started rolling in.  No rain, but plenty of lightning.  And the neighbors were mostly quiet too.  Sleep happened.  Never as much as I’d have liked, but it did happen.

Due to financial issues, so far I have considerably fewer concerts lined up for next season (I’m hoping for more, but I don’t know if it’ll happen).  Even so, I’m pleased to say the first one is also a John Williams program.  The DSO will be performing the entirety of my all-time favorite Williams score, Raiders of the Lost Ark, playing alongside the film itself.   Be still, my beating heart.  Now all I have to do is wait until October.  The only question now is whether or not to wear the fedora.  Seems wrong not to, but I have to remind myself this is a classical concert hall.  I don’t want to be that guy… but… the music says to grab the hat…

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