Violinist Gabriel Lefkowitz. Photo: Saul-Young
Film Favorites: The Music of John Williams
Bob Bernhardt, Conductor
Gabriel Lefkowitz, Violin Soloist
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2018 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
I am just going to go out and say it: John Williams is perhaps the greatest living composer. The length and breadth of his storied career expands beyond the celluloid, into our performance halls and, more importantly, our classrooms. His music is instantly recognizable and more times than not elicits a memory or two. Admittedly, most of those memories may come from his music used in a movie, but why not? A movie is a vehicle for sharing some of the World’s most dynamic compositions and Maestro Williams has excelled in driving us to heights of audible excitement teamed with stunning cinematography.
If you are at all familiar with Bob Bernhardt you know he is unapologetic about his appreciation and adoration for Williams and his works. So, it came as no surprise that our Louisville Orchestra would begin the latest Pops season with an evening of some of the more famous of Mr. Williams’ works.
While one would be hard pressed to fit all of the movie compositions that Mr. Williams has gifted us within a short amount of performance time, Maestro Bernhardt chose a well-rounded representation of different styles and a few surprises.
As is tradition after the orchestra tunes up and Mr. Barnhardt takes the podium, the familiar rat-a-tat-tat on the snare drum begins to echo through the newly cleaned Whitney Hall and the audience rises and sings the National Anthem.
A selection from Jurassic Park started the evening off. Now, to be honest, I have never seen the movie, but one cannot help but envision what could be happening at any given moment throughout the piece. In the calm of the woodwinds I think of a Brontosaurus lazily eating some palm fronds when all of a sudden with a ferocity from the strings, brass, and percussion I jerk into seeing the deadly Tyrannosaurus Rex running amok and terrorizing all that it comes in contact with.
To be sure, the success of the first three Harry Potter movies was helped by the stunning orchestral work that John Williams brought to the table. We were treated to three selections from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Fawkes the Phoenix, Dobby the House Elf and Gilderoy Lockhart. Within the Fawkes selection there is a brilliant use of top hat, in Dobby I heard a brilliant elocution of the harmonic bridge and I agree with what our Maestro said concerning the Gilderoy Lockhart theme, I heard some Addams Family influence too. I believe that was due in part to the nimble harpsichord playing by Grace Baugh-Bennett.
Part of me wishes that our Maestro had not introduced the next selection of the evening, but would have instead allowed the lower strings and harp to begin some of the scariest sets of notes played in movie history, E to F to D. Know what movie I’m referring to? Jaws, of course. You are probably wondering about that D, aren’t you? While we are very familiar with the E-F repeat, it is when the strings sharply strike D that we get the culmination of what Jaws is. And judging from comments heard from audience members around me, the theme’s effect still holds true some 43 years later.
The first half of the evening closed with the fanciful “Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick and “The Flight to Neverland” from Hook that Maestro Bernhardt ranks in William’s Top 5 compositions. In “Devil’s Dance” the brass provided some enticing sounds and the strings and woodwinds made us want to soar along with Peter, Wendy, and the Lost Boys in “Flight”.
There were two other pieces in the first half, but I’m saving those for later.
The second half of the evening began with the sprawling and Celtic-influenced Suite from Far and Away. Inspired by the film The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, Maestro Williams was successful in using the woodwinds to remind us of the winds that blow over the rolling, lush, and verdant hills of the Emerald Isles.
Believe it or not there is an actual fully realized 3-minute score to the oft heard theme to the NBC Nightly News and we were able to hear it in its entirety. After an interview with Bryant Gumble in which he was asked his opinion of NBC’s current theme song, Mr. Williams said it was “okay” (or something equally dispassionate). So, I’d like to think he felt challenged to create something even better. Titled “Mission Theme”, there are elements within that were inspired by, Mr. Williams’ father, who worked on Wall Street. I won’t give it away, but next time you hear it, see if you can figure it out. Applause for the pinpoint accuracy from the percussionists.
To say that the music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a bit unusual is an understatement. Mr. Williams’ Julliard trained composition techniques for this film were unlike anything else being used at that time and certainly helped to bring the movie audience to believe that it is possible that we could communicate with other worlds using a Solfege technique: Re, Mi, Do, Do, So. Kudos to the Orchestra for paying attention to the dissonant tones and keeping them sharp throughout the piece.
As Mr. Bernhardt introduced the next piece, “The Rebellion is Reborn” from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he told us that the good Maestro, at the age of 86, is about to take pencil/pen to staff paper (yes indeed, he does things long-hand) and compose music for Star Wars IX. While this theme seems to be a bit of a departure from the other Star Wars themes, you still get the excitement of battle amidst the stars in a Tie Fighter.
There aren’t many film makers who would re-edit their works because of music, but Steven Spielberg is no ordinary film maker. As was told to us by Maestro Bernhardt, upon hearing Mr. Williams’ score for his movie E.T.: the Extraterrestrial, he changed the last three minutes of the movie because of the perfect fit that the music had. Our orchestra certainly helped us relive those memories.
Speaking of Steven Spielberg, within the evening there were two movie themes presented that elicit strong emotions every time that I hear them: Lincoln and Schindler’s List.
“With Malice Toward None” is a nod to President Lincoln’s second inaugural address and is written for strings. The LO’s principal cellist Nicholas Finch brought forth a rich and vibrant solo within the graceful notes that could have been the voice of our nation’s 16th president.
It is said that when John Williams sat down with Spielberg after watching Schindler’s List that he told the award-winning director that the film needed a much greater composer than himself, to which Spielberg replied, “…But John, they are all dead”.
To say how profound the film and the music from Schindler’s List is would be hard to quantify, but I will say the marriage between the two elevated the movie to an even stronger meaning. And to carry the beauty of the piece an orchestra needs a talented and driven violinist, lucky for us, we’ve got one in Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz. His delivery of the haunting theme was succulent and somber. As the piece ended Maestro Bernhardt said to the first chair, “That was right pretty”. Yes, indeed it was.
While the evening actually ended with an encore piece – the Star Wars IV theme, which of course was received with great happiness and enthusiasm, I am going to circle back to a piece that came earlier in the evening.
Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, the Louisville Orchestra debated whether or not to cancel their next scheduled community concert. As is the custom in showbiz, “the show must go on”. Within that presentation they performed one of Mr. Williams’ best fanfares: The Olympic Spirit. Written for the Olympic Games in 1988, the score is a rallying cry for triumph, unity, and perseverance. Deep within its chromatic scales and notations I detected a familiar theme that reminds us of an icon that for generations has become a symbol of strength and integrity. It was none other than Williams’ theme from the 1978 Superman movie, about a character who fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. I’d be hard pressed to think of a better orchestral piece than Olympic Spirit to help remind all of us that we are resilient, we are strong, and we are one.
Thank you, Maestro Bernhardt and the Louisville Orchestra, for your musicianship and well cultivated choice of programming. I look forward to another fantastic POPS season!
Film Favorites: The Music of John Williams
September 14, 2018
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 W. Main St
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.