John Williams at the Indy Symphony

Here, good reader, is my review of John Williams’ concert in Indianapolis. I’m only a month late in writing it! [For reference, here’s a review I wrote of a concert in 2005 in Chicago.]

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John Williams returned to the helm of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Sunday night, February 11, 2018. (This was news to me; apparently, he gave a concert here in 1983, which was pre-Circle Theatre days for the ISO!) This concert was a gift to the ISO from Maestro Williams and featured a good balance of his blockbuster hits, lesser performed pieces and even a few pieces composed within the last two years!

The concert opened with  “Flight from Neverland” from Hook, which is lovely piece, easy to overlook in against the whole body of Williams’ work.  I also think this piece makes for a great opening number – it has such a palpable sense of magical adventure with the opening ostinato in the high strings and high winds before the brass launch into their fanfare.  A magical adventure is, of course, what we embark on anytime we take our seats at a concert of a great symphony orchestra.

The second piece was “Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which earned Williams an Oscar nomination for Best Score in 1977. Ultimately, Williams lost to himself with Star Wars. I’ve heard this piece performed live several times now; it’s atonality is an interesting contrast to the neo-romanticism of Williams’ better known work.

Next up were three pieces from the Indiana Jones movies. Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra is a fun piece of action music from The Last Crusade when Sean Connery and Harrison Ford are being chased by Nazis on motorcycles. The piece features several of the primary motifs from The Last Crusade and makes for a good overview of the score.  Williams said he named the piece for “Orchestra and Motorcycle” after seeing the film in the theater and being a bit disappointed that the sound of the motorcycles largely drowned out the music. The second piece from the Indiana Jones films was Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost ArkThis selection brings me to my only quibble. While Marion’s Theme is a very lovely piece, an extensive part of it is also played in the concert arrangement of The Raiders March, which was the next piece played. At a concert like this, I was hoping to maximize the amount of unique music heard. What I’m saying is, I would have traded Marion’s Theme for something else from Raidersthe Map Room sequence or the lovely music from when the Nazis’ faces melt off.

Next was “The New Beginning” from Minority Report, which might be the last Tom Cruise movie I enjoyed. This is an infrequently performed score, overshadowed not so much because of the quality of the music itself, but by the lack of blockbuster status of the film, so I was glad to hear it.

The first half the concert ended with “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. which I’ve heard at other concerts, and would never get tired of. It’s an enthralling piece. 

At intermission, Alison and I had our picture taken with Darth Vader and some of the storm troopers form  to show to our daughter who has become enamored with “Dark Vader” despite never seeing the Star Wars movies.

The second half of the concert began with “Harry’s Wondrous World” which is a concert piece featuring several of the themes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Harry Potter movies, like Star Wars, have an astonishing number of fantastic little themes and leitmotifs. While Williams only composed the scores for the first three films (and to be clear, the Prisoner of Azkaban score is definitely the best; see here, here, here, and here) several of Williams’ themes have been carried over by the other composers who finished the series.  While we’re talking about it, you really should be listening to the podcast The Art of Score; they do a fantastic job of breaking down scores, examining musical influences. Their episode on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is especially good – start with it!

Out to Sea & the Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws [start this video about 3:00 mark] I’ve heard these before in concert, and they are always delightful and probably not what most people expect from Jaws.

Concertmaster Zach dePue played the Theme from Schindler’s List perfectly. Williams related the story about watching the un-scored Schindler’s List with Steven Spielberg as part of planning the score, and Williams flatly telling Spielberg that the director would need a better composer than him for this film. Spielberg responded “I know, but they’re all dead.”

Next was a piece from 2016’s BFG, which I believe marks the 1 millionth collaboration between Williams and Steven Spielberg. Williams took a moment to praise the ISO’s principal flute who was featured prominently in the piece. This was the only piece of the night from a movie I haven’t seen.

The concert ended, as it should, with music from Star Wars. The first piece was Throne Room and End Credits from A New Hope. This piece of music, like my first crush, will always be lovely. Next were two pieces from the new Star Wars films – Rey’s Theme (which Williams endearingly referred to as “Daisy’s Theme”) and The Rebellion is Reborn from The Last Jedi.

There were two encores – both from Star Wars oeuvre  – the first being “Han Solo and the Princess”, which Williams introduced by mentioning that when he first got word that there would be a Star Wars #2 (which wasn’t a given while Episode IV was in production) he immediately began thinking about a love theme for Luke and Leia – but that had to change after he saw the script for The Empire Strikes Back. This concert piece was re-worked very recently by Williams, and I was glad to hear this new version.

The final piece of the night, played without comment from the conductor but to hearty cheers from the audience, was “The Imperial March”, a piece that seems mandatory for John Williams concert. This is not a complaint – I hum this piece softly to myself whenever I walk down a long hallway. It’s an indelible part of the mental soundtrack of my life.

I am really glad this concert happened for this city and this symphony. The enthusiasm of the crowd was tremendous; the conductor and orchestra were given a long standing ovation at the end. I was also very happy to see many families with children in attendance. Growing up, the music of John Williams was so formative. Because of his scores, I discovered the music of Ravel, Dvorak, Holst, Tchaikovsky, Korngold, and many more. I’m sure others in the audience have a similar stories.

I’ve now seen him live in concert 4 times, but I’ve never met John Williams. But if I did meet him, as cheesy as it sounds, I’d really just want to say “Thank you.”

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