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Cleveland Orchestra salutes movie music of John Williams at Blossom

Richard Kaufman

Two questions came to mind while listening to the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra at Blossom Music Center over the weekend:

Would Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin written for the movies, had the cinema existed in their respective eras—or would they have deigned the scoring of popcorn pictures beneath them?

Secondly (but similarly), do professional symphony musicians feel cheap playing pop fare?

We imagined those progressive in Yes playing The Kingsmen’s three-chord anthem “Louie, Louie,” and the Canadian rockers in Rush jamming on The Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Both bands might have a lot of fun covering “easy” classics, but they (and we) know they’re capable of so much more.

Then again, there’s nothing necessarily “easy” about the music of John Williams, the Boston Pop Orchestra’s conductor laureate, and composer responsible for some of the most memorable movie music of the 20th Century (and beyond).

To our ears, the twists and turns of a signature Williams piece are as emotionally charged—and musically challenging—as any Beethoven sonata or Handel fugue. Who are we to guess whether it takes any more (or less) skills (or moxie) to pull off the brass-laden overture from a space opera than the string and woodwind-drenched prelude to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite?

But we digress.

The Cleveland Orchestra did appear to be having a grand time playing John Williams’ greatest hits during its season-capping shows Saturday and Sunday (September 5 and 6th) in Cuyahoga Falls. As did the 5,000-plus spectators in the Blossom pavilion and 13,000 patrons sprawled across the lawn (we’ve never seen it so crowded in our 30 years attending shows there).

And why wouldn’t they be having fun? Movies fire the imagination, and music is the universal language—the dialogue of heart and soul. And Williams is the preeminent movie composer of our time. Only Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Barry, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, and Danny Elfman are terrific—but let’s face it, Williams’ scores are the ones we’ve been humming for the last forty-plus years. He’s the one whose merry measures, awesome anthems, and heroic themes have time and time again tapped the zeitgeist and permeated pop culture.

Conducted by inveterate T.V. / film composer Richard Kaufman, the (almost) 100-year old Cleveland Orchestra was sensational during our visit on a sticky-humid Sunday evening. And Kaufman—now in his 25th season as Principle Pops Conductor of the Pacific Symphony (and 10th with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s own “At the Movies” series)—was an affable host who appeared to genuinely relish the family-friendly outdoors gig.

After the concertmaster / first violinist tuned up his mates, Kaufman strode out to the podium and guided the ensemble into “Liberty Fanfare,” a patriotic piece from the 1986 restoration and re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty. From Ellis Island it was off to Isla Nublar for an impact-tremor inducing medley of music from Jurassic Park, whose gossamer string melodies captured the wonder of what it must feel like to behold a brachiosaur up-close and in-person. 

Kaufman opined that the “Scherzo” was from the most exciting action sequence of the entire Indy trilogy. We respectfully disagree, bestowing that title on the Nazi truck chase out of Tanis—from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  
It’s a testament to the power of Williams’ music—and to the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of it—that visuals weren’t needed to augment the show (unlike the Pixar concert a couple summers back, which had onscreen cartoon montages to accompany the music). Most people (even kids) remember these magical moments, heartwarming scenes, and breathtaking movie stunts.