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Music Review: New York Philharmonic, “John Williams: A Night at the Movies”

11.05.11
Gil Shaham
California Literary Review

By Lucy Butcher

NEW YORK – It was all about the music of Hollywood in a special one-night New York Philharmonic performance last week, and who better to conduct than John Williams, who has composed and directed the scores for more than 100 films over the last half-century, including George Lucas’s six Star Wars films and most of Steven Spielberg’s feature films. Williams celebrates his 80th birthday in February but shows no signs of slowing down: he continues to produce about two film scores per year and has worked most recently on the forthcoming Spielberg films The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, and Lincoln.

With a screen at the back of the stage showing film clips in parallel with some of the evening’s music, Avery Fisher Hall felt more like the Kodak Theater as the Philharmonic opened with a Williams arrangement of the “Hooray for Hollywood” tune, which is always heard at Academy Awards ceremonies. Next, the orchestra played three selections from Hollywood’s Golden Age: Korngold’s “March” from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); North’s “Love Theme and March” from Spartacus (1960); and the “Scène d’amour” from Vertigo (1958), composed by Bernard Herrmann, who provided the musical landscapes for most of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man (1956), North by Northwest (1959), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). Often orchestrating for strings only, to great effect, Herrmann injected powerful feelings of unease in the viewer and listener, and he did this spectacularly in the score for Psycho (1960), which he later made a recording of with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under his own baton. Herrmann’s achievements show that the best film music doesn’t just support a scene and stay in the background but rather stands up as a composition in its own right.

The performance, of course, paid tribute to John Williams and his collaborations with Steven Spielberg, starting with selections from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), not one of Williams’s better-known themes and perhaps not the best programming decision. The theme from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was a good choice, however, and the orchestra overcame some muddled moments to produce a big, unified sound with soaring strings, singing horns, and a dramatic finish from the timpani. Violinist Gil Shaham joined the Philharmonic to play three pieces from Schindler’s List, which picked up a host of Academy Awards in 1993, including Best Picture and Best Original Score, with the achingly sad main theme performed by the great Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman. Shaham did total justice to the theme and produced a liquid sound that was soft and restrained yet full of power, his bow gliding tenderly over the strings. He also played the tango from the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, nursing his violin as if it were his dancing partner and making the melody sing oh-so-sweetly, as well as excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof (1964).

Judging by the audience’s response, the final item listed on the program was what many had come for: Williams’s title theme from Star Wars, one of the most well-known compositions in the modern music repertoire. There were a couple of encores, including the theme from Indiana Jones and the “Imperial March,” or Darth Vadar’s theme, from Star Wars, which drew cheers from fans and a standing ovation. At this point, when it seemed like the evening was just getting started, with the audience clapping for more, Williams made a gesture that it was time for him to go to bed. Earlier in the program, the orchestra had performed a fantastic Williams arrangement that gave a brief taste of several dozen much-loved themes from films such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Godfather, The Magnificent Seven, The Pink Panther, Rocky, Psycho, and Gone With The Wind. The Philharmonic’s “Night at the Movies” would have been more satisfying if a few more classic themes like these had been played in full – and without the addition of film clips, to allow the focus to be squarely on the music.