Whenever my friends ask me who the best film composer of all time is, my answer is immediate and swift: “John Williams, duh!” I mean, the fact that Williams scored “Star Wars” places him miles ahead of his peers both past and present. Once you consider his scores for “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “Schindler’s List” and countless others, you realize that the man is already light-years ahead.
That being said, when I heard about a month ago that he was going to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl for a concert fittingly titled “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies” on Aug 26 and 27, I knew that this was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up, even though this concert occurs annually.
On a humid Friday evening, I, along with my friend and thousands of other attendees (with many sipping wine or doting toy lightsabers), sat in our seats with great anticipation, anxiously waiting for the renowned composer to take the stage.
When the clock struck 8:30 pm, the lights surrounding the amphitheater went out, clouding the audience in darkness, with the only lights glowing from the stage and the occasional digital camera or phone. A smattering of claps met Philharmonic violinist Bing Wang as she walked onstage to tune the orchestra before taking her seat among her fellow violinists. Soon, the man of the night himself – dressed in a white tuxedo – stepped out to wild applause.
Taking his place at the podium, he took up his baton and led the Philharmonic in performing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with the audience rising to their feet and softly singing the lyrics in accompaniment.
After the rousing anthem, three giant screens began to play a montage comprised of scenes of various films from across the ages, including – but not limited to – “Citizen Kane,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Titanic.” Williams and the Philharmonic performed a medley of famous film scores from titles like “Gone with the Wind” and openings like the one for 20th Century Fox. Williams wasn’t involved with all of these films, but what did it matter? It was his tribute to the film composer, and truly made the listener appreciate how music enhances the cinematic experience.
Despite nearing 80 years of age, Williams moved with the exuberance and passion of a young man, yet led the Philharmonic with the wisdom of one whose life has revolved around music for many decades. He perfectly dictated the beat, tempo, dynamics and articulation with his graceful, swaying hands, letting the music surround him and becoming one with the orchestra.
After conducting the orchestra to a montage dedicated to Western films, Williams then turned to speak to the audience for the first time, giving his thanks before speaking about “The Reibers,” William Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning last novel. He then invited singer-songwriter James Taylor — also the special guest narrator for the event — to read an excerpt from the novel while the orchestra provided his suite from the novel’s 1969 film adaptation.
As Williams conducted the Philharmonic throughout the course of Taylor’s reading, the audience listened with rapt attention like children when their school librarian reads a story to them. The music skipped daintily, rose triumphantly and finally became emotionally sensitive as Taylor finished reading. The audience was suddenly in for a treat when Williams provided a guitar for Taylor, who sang a sweet cowboy ballad written for his nephew James. When he finished, a brief intermission ensued. By then the night had considerably cooled and numerous crickets chirped.
Following a montage dedicated to the monsters, female stars and heroes in cinema, Williams then showed the audience the circus train chase sequence from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which was edited so that there was no music at all. He narrated the action in addition to how the music would change and what it would be like at specific moments in the sequence. The footage then played again, but this time, he led the Philharmonic into performing the music based on his narration, and once again the audience was reminded of the important role that music has in cinema.
Younger audiences became enthralled when the harpsichord played the opening notes of “Hedwig’s Theme” from the “Harry Potter” films, and soon it was joined by the rest of the orchestra.
Williams then celebrated the experience of watching movies on the big screen by covering the love theme from “Cinema Paradiso,” which was performed in perfect harmony with a montage comprised of scenes from various films that had characters watching movies in theaters.
As he was leading the Philharmonic into excitedly playing “The Asteroid Field” from “The Empire Strikes Back,” a police helicopter had the nerve to troll the concert by annoyingly flying overhead and buzzing a short distance away for a while. Up next was the comforting “Princess Leia’s Theme” from “A New Hope.” In the middle of it, I heard the familiar sound of a lightsaber being activated right behind me, and turned around to see a grinning young man who gleefully muttered, “Oh yeah,” as he began to slowly wave his toy lightsaber around.
Finally, the familiar words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … ” appeared on the screens, and the entire audience — who had been cheering, clapping and whistling at varied intervals during the concert — exploded into a glorious celebration when the orchestra performed the famous “Main Title” from “A New Hope” in conjunction to a montage of all the “Star Wars” films.
At its end, Williams then walked off the stage to thunderous applause. He wasn’t gone for long, though; he returned a mere moment later and stepped up to the podium again.
Now, there was one particular piece that I desperately wanted to hear, and the man must have heard my prayers, for the orchestra began to play “Imperial March” from “The Empire Strikes Back.” It was met with the audience’s roar of approval and, evoking the scene from “Attack of the Clones” where Mace Windu signals all the Jedi to reveal themselves in Geonosis, every single audience member who had a toy lightsaber immediately turned it on and began moving them to the beats of the music.
After “Imperial March,” Williams ended up taking two more encores, returning twice more with the themes from “E.T.” and “Indiana Jones,” and each received nothing short of reverberant applause.
When the Philharmonic finished playing, Williams turned and saluted the thousands of people in the audience. Though all pleaded with him to play more, he placed the palms of his hands together and placed the side of his head on them, indicating that he had to sleep, signaling that the concert had come to an end. He exited the stage for the final time to a grand standing ovation.
As we began making our way out of the amphitheater, I could make out over the audience’s loud chatter the crickets, who were still chirping. I like to believe that Mother Nature too had spent the night listening to such magnificent music and was paying tribute to the maestro of the movies through her little creatures’ own music.