DSO – Raiders of the Lost Ark in Concert

A Note from the Composer:

In creating the character Indiana Jones, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg introduced an enduring and much loved figure into the pantheon of fictional movie heroes.  Raiders of the Lost Ark was illuminated by the superb comedy-action performance of Harrison Ford and enlivened by the spirited direction of Steven Spielberg.

Speaking for myself, I must say that the experience of composing the music for this film, and for the subsequent installments in the series, was a very happy one, and offered me a wild and truly joyous ride.  I’m especially delighted that the magnificent Dallas Symphony Orchestra has agreed to perform the music this evening in a live presentation of the movie.

I know I speak for everyone connected with the making of the Raiders in saying that we are greatly honored by this event… and I hope that tonight’s audience will experience some measure of the joy and fun we did when making the film nearly thirty-five years ago.

— John Williams

When I was a kid, I was introduced to classical music via three avenues: Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Looney Tunes, and film scores, primarily those of John Williams.  Before I had this site, I got to see the Dallas Symphony Orchestra perform live to a showcase called Bugs Bunny on Broadway.  Just last year, I attended their Fantasia concert.  And I’ve attended their John Williams concerts more times than I can count.  It’s how I ended last season.  In fact, my first concert at the DSO was dedicated to the music of Star Wars.  And that’s fitting because Star Wars is, of course, where all roads begin and end for me when it comes to 99% of my interests.  For purposes of this blog, it’s how I discovered my love of music in general, and it’s how I discovered classical music and film scores.  Back in those days, if you wanted to relive a movie, you didn’t go to your collection and watch the film on your big screen.  That option wasn’t yet available.  You relived a movie through toys, books, games, and all manner of other merchandise.  But mostly, you relied on the film score album.  It just happens that the first film score album I ever got was John Williams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark.  On vinyl.  I didn’t yet have a cassette player, and 8-tracks truly sucked.  Given that I still have this record, and in incredible condition all things considered, I’m calling it a good choice.  (The one in this photo isn’t mine.  Mine’s in better condition.)

At the age of seven, this record was my in-road to deeper understanding of film score and instrumental music as a whole.  The journey began on the back side of the album with a note from director Steven Spielberg where he states that Indiana Jones…

“…would surely have perished in a forbidding temple in South America or in the oppressive silence of the great Sahara desert.  Nevertheless, Jones did not perish but listened carefully to the RAIDERS score.  Its sharp rhythms told him when to run.  Its slicing strings told him when to duck.  Its several integrated themes told adventurer Indiana Jones when to kiss the heroine or smash the enemy.”

The ideas in that little note became embedded in my head, and from there I learned about theme, motif, ostinato, and other tricks of the trade that allow film scores to define the character and tone of a film like no other tool in the box can.  Because of what I learned, combined with a lifetime of memories growing up with his music, I have a great respect for John Williams.  I owe him a debt unlike any other.  If asked to pick a favorite, I’d probably wobble between his Star Wars scores, Superman, and the Indiana Jones scores, with honorable mention to E.T. and a dozen others.  But if a gun were put to my head, I’d probably pick Raiders.  The experience of this album makes it my sentimental favorite, to say nothing of the fact that it’s also one of my favorite films of all time.

Due to finances being what they are, I’m unable to attend nearly as many DSO concerts this season as the last couple of years, but even so this season starts here, with a complete live performance of the classic Raiders score… accompanying the film itself.  I cannot possibly describe to you how much I’ve been looking forward to this!  Maybe this will help…

I’ve been debating all summer whether or not to grab my trusty fedora (officially licensed, of course).  In the end, I reminded myself this is a concert hall, and I opted to leave it at home.  I did, however, take all those decades of love and adventure with me.  How could it be otherwise?

Upon arrival, my first thought was I should have grabbed the hat.  There were a handful of people dressed to the nines as Indy.  Oh well.  Once we took our seats, I realized… our seats weren’t the best for viewing this film.

I had to lean forward to take this shot.  From my normal position, that overhang cuts off the lower left corner of the E in Raiders.  At first I grumbled.  Then I started wondering why they didn’t just lower the screen some like they did with Fantasia.  And then remembered I’ve seen this film 500 times, and the reason I’m here is to experience the music.  So I sucked it up and enjoyed.  After all, this is one of the greatest movies ever made, with my favorite score by the greatest film composer in history, being performed by one of the very best orchestras in the world.  The only way this could have been better is if Williams himself were at the podium.  And honestly, these seats are better for the performance than for the visuals.

Before they lowered the lights, I made a comment about how grueling this score really is and wondering if they were going to do an intermission.  After all, the second half is even more relentless, musically speaking, than the first half.

Yes.  Yes they did.  It came right where Indy leads his team up to the dig site to find the Well of the Souls, and he sticks his shovel into the sand.  There was a musical transition to the Indy theme as the house lights came up.  Very well done.  The lady sitting next to us remarked that the last time she’d seen this movie was when it was brand new in theaters, so she didn’t remember most of it.  The way the audience was reacting, you’d think it was a brand new film.  People were squirming over spiders and snakes, laughing at the right moments… it was fun, even if some of the performance of the score was lost momentarily here and there.  My ears could hear it.  My ears could also make out distinct sound effects in the film that I’d not really heard before due to the lack of separation with the music.  The film’s dialogue and sound effects were quite audible, and were actually a bit loud, if I’m being honest. in proportion to the volume of the orchestra.  Still, it’s not everyday you can walk away from something like this having discovered something new.

When the orchestra returned, they didn’t launch immediately into the film.  Instead they threw us a curve ball and played “Mutt’s Theme” from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Our conductor for this show, Constantine Kitsopulous, didn’t say word one to us.  Usually for the main performances, our main conductor will say nothing, but pops performances such as this one allow the conductors to get chatty.  At the very least, there’s usually an introduction or something.  Apparently, Indy needs no introduction.

Because I know the score so well, I was able to detect differences in the instrumentation levels of live vs. studio post-production.  That was interesting.  I also know where the edits in the film score are vs. what’s heard in the soundtrack album as the album has complete tracks, unedited.  This is most noticeable during the end credits.  It seems so weird to hear a live orchestra play the edits as if that’s how it’s written… which I suppose in this case, it was.  But still.  Weird.

And there was one teensy, tiny flaw in the performance that’s so glaringly obvious to someone like myself who knows this as I do.  Look back at the photos where the screen is.  See those seats behind and around the screen above the orchestra?

There should be a choir there.  The “power of the Ark” motif requires a choir.  Case in point, my favorite track on the score:

That choir is even more pronounced for the climax of the film when the Ark is opened.  Admittedly, I’m a bit bummed by this, but I took the opportunity to hear what normally can’t be heard well underneath that choir… such as the sound effects of the angelic wraiths flying around.

All said and done, the performance itself was absolutely flawless.  I heard many patrons as we were leaving say that they forgot the orchestra was there for much of the time because it was just like watching the film like normal.  I’m glad I didn’t have that experience.  I was hyper-focused on the orchestra, learning some of the instrumentation that I wasn’t entirely sure about in some places, hearing some of the pieces with a slightly different instrument balance, and so forth.  It was magnificent.  And it earned them a standing ovation.  It was a wonderful way to cap off the weekend.


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