Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Concert Review: John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl (9/5/2009)

As ToastyKen said in his Depeche Mode concert review, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles is a wonderful venue that provides great acoustics in a beautiful setting.  One of the eagerly anticipated annual concerts at the Bowl is "John Williams and the Music of the Movies," two nights when the legendary film composer himself conducts the LA Philharmonic Orchestra.

If John Williams' name doesn't ring a bell, think about the theme song to Jaws.  Yup, that's his.  Indiana Jones?  That's his music too.  All six Star Wars films?  You betcha.  Unless you've been living under a rock (without wifi access and a laptop, mind you) for more than 30 years, Williams' music is part of the soundtrack of your life.

With a vast number of instantly recognizable pieces of music at his fingertips, the composer could easily coast along and lead the LA Phil through the same "greatest hits" performance of his work every year.  The delight—and potential frustration—of his Hollywood Bowl concerts is that Williams never opts for this easy route.  Audience members know they'll get to enjoy some of these "greatest hits" and that at least one of them will be a selection from Star Wars.  They also know that part of the evening will be a salute to at least one other notable movie composer.  Other than that, what they'll hear that night is up for grabs until they arrive at the venue and receive the concert program.
This year's "Music of the Movies" concerts were unique in that the entire first hour was devoted to Williams' music from a single franchise—Harry Potter.  Since I was attending with a group of family and friends (a situation akin to herding lots and lots and lots of cats), we arrived just in time to catch the last two pieces, "The Chamber of Secrets" and one of my favorite Williams' compositions "Harry's Wondrous World."  As a Potter fan, I wasn't happy to have missed so much of the performance, but what I did get to hear was excellent and well-paired with the movie clips they show on the large screens for the audience.  An additional treat came in the form of special guest Vanessa Redgrave, who served as the narrator between clips, tying the different Potter compositions togeher.

After intermission came a tribute to Williams' fellow film composers through an arrangement of well-known movie themes.  While I've usually seen Williams' educate the audience on a single composer during his Bowl concerts (his tribute to Alfred Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann a couple of years ago was especially memorable), this year's approach made evident the power music has to evoke memories and emotions.  The orchestra played only 10 to 15 seconds of the well-known theme songs to films like The Magnificent Seven, Gone with the Wind, Cinema Paradiso and Titanic, but even those short snippets of music would evoke audible reactions from the audience.

Instead of delving into some of his well-known music, Williams then talked for a bit about his 36-year working relationship with Steven Spielberg and the music he did for an atypical Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can.  The jazz stylings from the film score featured the vibraphone, sax and upright bass and were very enjoyable, but you could also feel that the audience was getting restless.

Personally, I couldn't complain about the next selection, an orchestral version of "As Time Goes By" from Casablanca featuring the LA Phil's lead violinist and concert mistress.  It was another tasteful nod to the composers who came before Williams and simply a treat to hear this lovely piece of music performed live.

The evening's official program finished strong with pieces from The Witches of Eastwick, the original Dracula and the main theme to the original Christopher Reeve Superman movies.  The Superman theme is always uplifting, but this year the Superman movie clips were mixed with Batman movie snippets as part of a superheroes tribute, which considerably weakened the visual component.  The feel of both the older Batman movies and the Christian Bale reboot films is so different from the optimistic, inspiring Superman music that the mixed clips were a distraction from the excellent music.

As is often the case, many of the biggest crowd-pleasing pieces were saved for the two encores.  One of my favorite and fantastically geeky parts of these annual concerts is the fan reaction as soon as a Star Wars theme starts to play.  As soon as Williams announced the start of "Yoda's Theme," Warsies in the audience whipped out hundreds of lightsabers of every color, waving them enthusiastically.  The start of the unmistakable main theme from Star Wars only made them happier, although the fans were more subdued this year.  Usually, some fans leap up and have lightsaber duels up and down the aisles but I didn't see any of that happen this time around.

The second encore started with the theme to E.T., which was a nice flashback to some of Williams' earlier work.  Williams and the orchestra played right into the fans' hands, closing out the night with nothing less than the "Imperial March" from Star Wars.  While some audience members were heard to voice their disappointment that nothing from Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park or Schindler's List had been played, not knowing what favorites you'll hear or not hear is actually part of the draw of these concerts.  It's also a testament to the skill and immense talent of John Williams that he has created such a successful body of work that he can pick and chose which of his famous pieces he wants to share each year.

"John Williams and the Music of the Movies" 2009 setlist:
Harry Potter—"Hedwig's Theme," "Aunt Marge's Waltz," "Diagon Alley and The Gringotts Vault," "The Knight Bus," "The Quidditch Match," "Fawkes The Phoenix," "A Window to the Past," "The Chamber of Secrets" and "Harry's Wondrous World"


A Tribute to Film Composers (including music from The Bridge on the River Kwai, Patton, The Godfather, Cinema Paradiso, The Magnificent Seven, TitanicGone with the WindE..T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars)
Suite from Catch Me If You Can
"As Time Goes By" from Casablanca
"Devil's Dance" from The Witches of Eastwick
"End Titles" from Dracula
"Superman - Main Theme" from Superman

First Encore
Star Wars—"Yoda's Theme" and "Star Wars - Main Titles"

Second Encore
Suite from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
"Imperial March" from Star Wars

Don't forget to visit our Pop Wenches YouTube channel at to see additional clips from this concert!

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