Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra - A Salute to John Williams, State Theatre, New Brunswick, NJ April 17

John Williams
I'm a big John Williams fan.  I grew up with his music and the soundtracks to Jaws, Towering Inferno, Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET pretty much carried me from elementary school through High School graduation. 

I've actually seen Williams conduct his own music twice, both times were in the late 1980's and with the Boston Pops when he was their principal conductor, a position he held for 13 years.  I saw him once in Boston and the other time at Carnegie Hall.   At both concerts he conducted several of his own music pieces which was a pretty special thing to see, and hear.

I've also become a fan of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.  We saw them a couple of years back when Brian Stokes Mitchell performed with them at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark (NJPAC) - and they also played for Patti LuPone and her "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda" concert there last Fall.  Hearing both of those Broadway performers sing with a huge symphony was a lush theatrical experience especially considering that most Broadway orchestras these days are considered large if they have fifteen pieces in them. 

I'm also a big Alfred Hitchcock fan and last Spring the NJSO performed a concert of music from his movies at NJPAC where the orchestra played the music from various scenes of his films that were projected on a screen over the orchestra.  It was an interesting glimpse into how an orchestra plays for a scoring session of a movie, playing in sync with the picture playing on a large screen that the conductor follows to ensure both are in perfect harmony.

So with my love of movie music and especially John Williams soundtracks, when I saw that the NJSO was presenting a concert of John Williams music I knew we had to go.  And the concert this past Sunday at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ was an exciting, thrilling and even magical experience.   Many of my fellow concert goers were as equally impressed.

The guest conductor for the afternoon was Gerald Steichen.  Besides having conducted several orchestras around the country, he's actually also conducted on Broadway.  He proved to have complete command over the orchestra and had an exciting connection not only with the material but also with his love for John Williams' music, something that was obvious when he spoke to the audience at several times throughout the concert.  His conducting of the orchestra was exciting, romantic and intense at various times throughout the afternoon.

Now Williams has received 45 Oscar nominations, having won 5 times, and has composed the scores to almost 100 films, including the score for the upcoming film of War Horse directed by Steven Spielberg (see my review of the Broadway version of that story, which I loved, here)  Williams has also written special compositions like the theme for the 1984 Olympics. So picking out material for a two hour concert would ultimately mean that some audience favorite's might not be included as Williams' body of work is so extensive.  But, with only one exception, Steichen managed to find an excellent balance with the familiar Williams' movie themes as well as the music that an audience might not be that familiar with, but should be.

The afternoon included the following crowd favorites - the "Main Title" from Star Wars, the "Raiders March" from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the "Theme" from Jaws, the End Sequence from ET, a Suite from Jurassic Park and an exquisitely played "Theme" from Schindler's List that featured an impeccable violin solo from Brennan Sweet.  Every one of these pieces sounded to me like it could have come from the original recording that Williams did for the films, most of which he did with the London Symphony Orchestra.  And, Sweet's emotional playing on the Schindler's List theme sounded almost equal to the performance Itzhak Perlman gave for the film.  I would have to say that was the highlight of the afternoon for me.

But other lesser known selections were included as well - these included the rousing "Overture" to The Cowboys, a Suite from Memories of a Geisha, a jazzy selection from Catch Me If You Can, a beautiful suite from the first Harry Potter film and three special pieces that Williams wrote that aren't from movies - the "Bugler's Dream and Olympic Fanfare Medley" he wrote for the 1984 Olympics, the "Mission Theme" from the NBC News and the "Liberty Fanfare" he wrote for the Centennial of the Statue of Liberty.  

Several of Williams' songs from his film scores were also featured, sung by Peter Lockyer who has appeared in many Broadway productions.  Lockyer has a clear, strong voice and was a perfect match for the material.  The songs included "Can You Read My Mind" from Superman, the beautiful Christmas song "Somewhere in My Memory" from Home Alone and "For Always" from A.I. Artificial Intelligence.  I thought the song from A.I. just wasn't on the same calibre as the rest of the afternoon's selections, so I wish that another selection had been included - I think the "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back would have been a perfect replacement, but alas I wasn't the one programming the concert.  But even with this one misstep, it didn't detract from the overall enjoyment that I and about 1,000 other concert goers experienced.  

The one clear message that came through in hearing selections from so many of his film scores, his songs and the special material he has written, was that Williams can pretty much write a theme or score for any genre or time period.  Whether it is the rousing old West aura that he easily establishes in the opening notes of The Cowboys, the Asian influenced sounds the instruments are able to convey in Memoirs of a Geisha, the sense of wonder and magic Willams is able to have the music instill in E.T., Jurassic Park and Harry Potter, or the regal, triumphant sound of 1984 Olympic anthem, he can pretty much invoke any type of music necessary to have you connect with the films he scores or the event at hand.  Also, the themes Williams' writes are almost instantly recongnizable within hearing just the first few notes.  I hope the NJSO plans more concerts like this in the future.

And for those interested, Williams' Five Oscar wins were for Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. and Schindler's List and his first win was for adapting the stage music for the film of Fiddler on the Roof.

The NJSO is also playing Howard Shore's score to The Lord of the Rings- The Fellowship of the Ring this coming June - with a full choral ensemble as well, while the film plays on a giant screen overhead.  I can't wait to see that and I recommend any lovers of movie music to get your tickets now.

Here is a post I made after this one with my Ultimate John Williams Playlist- check it out!

Official site for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

 Amazon link for John Williams - Greatest Hits 1969 - 1999

 Amazon link for The Music of John Williams: 40 Years of Film Music

Amazon link for The Best of John Williams & The Boston Pops

Amazon link for By Request: The Best Of John Williams And The Boston Pops Orchestra

Amazon link for John Williams Conducts John Williams: The Star Wars Trilogy

Amazon link for The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration Classic Scores for the films of Steven Spielberg (Film Score Anthology)

John Williams conducting the New York Philharmonic in a selection of his scores for Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. -

1997 interview with Gene Shalit -

1984 Olympic Fanfare and theme -

Fan made video that highlights some of William's best film themes -

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