MSO: The Music of John Williams review

Already a terrific idea for a symphony orchestra concert, the celebration of the 90th birthday of John Williams is theatrically enhanced by engaging, knowledgeable hosts delving into the music and sharing insights into the movies themselves.

The capacity audience at Hamer Hall are effectively the guests at a live episode of music podcast Art of the Score, with the entertaining and enlightening discussion of Andrew Pogson and Dan Golding illuminated by snippets of music played live by the wonderful musicians of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Threaded between an already full program of Williams’ hits, these interspersed moments bring the work to life and create a real sense of occasion for the concert. 

There is a third co-host on Art of the Score, but instead of standing alongside his podcast comrades he is at the podium conducting the concert. Maestro Nicholas Buc contributes special comments of his own, and presents a couple of specially arranged sequences that really bring Williams’ artistry to life. 

The first half of the concert is bookended by spine tingling classics Superman: “March” and Jurassic Park: “Theme.” The splendid brass musicians are immediately heard in excellent form, joining the double basses in the percussive ostinato beneath the inspiring Superman score. 

Looking at Williams’ early musical life, we learn that Johnny Williams was heard on piano in Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.” Williams won the first of his five Academy Awards (from a whopping 52 nominations) for his arrangements for the 1972 movie Fiddler on the Roof. Concertmaster Sophie Howell dazzles on solo violin during excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof, graciously saying afterward that this music is like playing a violin concerto from classical composers like Tchaikovsky.

Williams has always had a flair for fanfares: the Channel Seven News theme is one of his, commissioned by US network NBC in 1985. Joined by the MSO Chorus, the orchestra plays “Call of the Champions,” the stirring theme of the 2002 Winter Olympics. 

Steven Spielberg first heard Williams’ work on the 1972 western The Cowboys and a great partnership was born. “The Shark Theme” from Jaws builds to a mighty climax in which the musicians emit a piercing shriek as though they have suddenly sighted the dorsal fin a of a shark from the stage. 

Discussing the five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Buc has numerous musicians playing “rejected” motifs, from contra bassoon to piccolo to harp, and even a cheeky wah wah wah wah waaaah from the trombone, before the oboe plays the notes that brigs a gasp of recognition from the audience.

The centrepiece of the first half of the program is an extended meditation on William’s love themes, arranged by Buc himself. Buc Illustrates how the musical interval of a sixth, along with a couple of specific chords, underpins romantic themes in a number of Williams’ scores. Buc concludes the sequence with key snippets of themes including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars all played to the same accompaniment. 

Expertly prepared by chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones, the Chorus contributes heavenly vocals for Home Alone carol “Somewhere in My Memory.” 

Act two opens with “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, an epic choral work that is certainly better than the movie itself. 

The act two centrepiece sees Buc and his co-hosts explain and illustrate how Williams helps flight-based scenes soar with his music. Buc analyses the components building to a sequential performance of the theme from ET and “Buckbeak’s Flight” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Over and above his keen knowledge of Williams’ music, a hallmark of Buc’s conducting is his finely honed ability to affectingly capture the mood of each piece. We are immersed in the emotion and excitement of each movie, a credit to the performances and to Williams’ genius in the first place.

Howell returns to the spotlight for a lyrically expressive, deeply moving solo in “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan.

For a groovy change of pace, xylophone, double bass and tenor saxophone are positioned downstage for “Closing In” from Catch Me If You Can. Saxophone soloist Tim Wilson evocatively describes the music as “Pink Panther” meets “The Rite of Spring.”

The chorus is well used in the second half, soaring in “Duel of the Fates,” heroic in “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan and portending mischief in “Double Trouble,” the second of two lively pieces from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The concert comes to a fittingly grand conclusion with “Throne Room and Finale” from the all time classic Star Wars: A New Hope. Buc then delights diehard fans with iconic anthem “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” before sneaking in one last encore with the deliciously jaunty “Cantina Band,” both, of course, from Star Wars: A New Hope.

At 165 minutes (including interval), the generous concert leaves the audience enriched and immensely satisfied. Hopes are high that the same team will return for a similar treatment of the work of another great composer.

The Music of John Williams plays again at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne 7.30pm Thursday 2 June 2022.

The Music of John Williams program can be read online. 

Photos: Nico Keenan

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