John Williams, who turned 81 this year, is perhaps the most famous American composer of the second half of the twentieth century, and this reputation lies largely on the incredible music that he has written for the silver screen. Williams is the successor to the Golden Age maestros whose sprawling scores made classic Hollywood films come to life. Williams also represents a compositional tradition that stretches all the way back to the Romantic era, where music was a supreme expression of feeling. One can hear the influence of Berlioz, Wagner, and Korngold written into his music through its bold colors, large orchestral gestures, and a comfortable use of expanded forces. The program of May 4 at Westover Church that the Greensboro Symphony offered was a fitting tribute to this modern day genius.
The program opened with the overture to the 1972 John Wayne film The Cowboys. Conductor Nathan Beversluis led the orchestra through this Copland-esque composition with a sure hand, bringing forth the vivid writing that Williams set to the page. One remarkable aspect of this music is the fact that it can stand on its own rather well, divorced from the film it was written for. This was one of the first films that Williams scored, and in the wildly descriptive tunes the seeds of his later career are planted.
Moving on, selections from Superman and Close Encounters of The Third Kind were heard next. The GSO brass section, expanded from its usual complement, acquitted itself beautifully. In the words of Maestro Beversluis, “Williams wrote wall to wall brass parts – let's give these guys a hand.” In fact, the entire orchestra did an excellent job of making Williams' music shine bright throughout the concert. There was some excellent audience participation in the form of willing volunteers who chose to pose in front of a green screen and put on the cape. As icing on the festive atmosphere, Lisa Crawford, president of the GSO, chose to be “rescued” from a pursuing stormtrooper when one of the percussion musicians revealed himself to be the Man of Steel.
Wrapping up the first half of the program was a suite from the first two Star Wars films. Of course this is the music that Williams is best known for, and the GSO put on their best effort. Through the “Main Theme,” “Princess Leia's Theme,” the “Imperial March,” the “Throne Room” and “Finale,” the orchestra showed off their skills. Having heard the GSO several times over the last couple of years in their Masterworks series, the improvement that they have shown is remarkable. This is not easy music to play, and their efforts paid off. The sounds Beversluis extracted from the orchestra were incredible – refulgent strings, strong brass, and wonderfully tasteful woodwinds made this saga from the stars come to life.
Opening act two of the show, along with Beversluis dropping from the rafters above the stage in full adventurer getup, was the “Raider's March” from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of The Lost Ark. The effect was marvelous, and the high energy from the first half of the program carried over into the second half. I could hear people humming and tapping along with this five-minute tour de force of a piece; the energy was quite infectious.
A well-known collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Williams is Jurassic Park, from which music was heard next. Along with Star Wars, this is one of William’s most bold, broad themes. Principal trumpet Anita Cirba led the brass section heroically through the piece with horns and strings contributing beautifully to the texture.
A change of pace came next in the form of the theme from Schindler's List, featuring concertmaster John Fadial. This poignant four-minute extract made for a fitting tribute to both those lost and those who survived the tragedy which is the basis for the movie. The applause at the end was suitably muted.
Moving back to the stars, the next selections heard came from the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy – “Anakin's Theme” from The Phantom Menace, “Across The Stars” from Attack of The Clones, and the “Battle of The Heroes” from Revenge of The Sith. Each selection reflected the mood of these films – light, love, and darkness. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the last selection, for which Williams wrote a rather active choral part, came off quite well without voices. The best aspect of this entire concert was the fact this music was played with complete sincerity and commitment – there was no slackness or uninvolvement on the part of either orchestra or conductor.
Closing the regular program was a suite from the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and The Sorceror's Stone. As the orchestra played, one could almost see and hear the magic that went into making this film, and John Williams' valuable contributions made it seem all the more real. The looks of delight on the faces of those paying attention made the occasion all that much more special. There's a lot that can be said about a group of musicians who can create such a marvelous atmosphere and fantasy that it seems as though one can reach out and touch it.
After the applause had ended, Maestro Beversluis offered as an encore the “March” from the 1979 Steven Spielberg film 1941. A sprawling send-up of war films, Williams' music is appropriately tongue-in-cheek, but it features one of the best marches that ever graced the silver screen. It is composed in traditional march format, but with the characteristic boldness that only John Williams can manage. Like other famous marches, such as “Colonel Bogey” and Williams' own “Imperial March,” it's a real showstopper of a piece, and the orchestra brought the house down as the last triumphant notes sounded out. In all, I dare say that this is one of the strongest programs the GSO has offered in recent memory, pops series or not. A fitting tribute to one of the greatest soundtrackers to ever live, the program was very special and Greensboro will not likely see better for quite some time.