John Williams and Star Wars in Concert
by Jeff Bond
On Friday, August 29, 1997 I attended John Williams's Star Wars
20th Anniversary concert at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring the Los Angeles
Philharmonic. As they say in Close Encounters, "I don't think
we could have asked for a more beautiful evening, do you?" Appropriately,
the Hollywood Bowl, with its huge hemispherical stage structure framed
by the Hollywood hills, resembled something fairly similar to the Dark
Side of the Moon in Spielberg's epic: the perfect venue for an evening
of space music.
Williams opened the concert with the obligatory performance of Richard
Strauss's "Sunrise" from Also sprach Zarathustra, more
popularly known as the Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. After an
energetic performance of Holst's thrilling "Jupiter" from The
Planets, a clearly winded Williams took the microphone to explain to
the naive why Johann Strauss's classical standard, the Waltz from "On
the Beautiful Blue Danube" was being played here instead of, say,
the theme from Star Trek (it's featured in the docking sequence
from 2001, stupid). Although it frequently interfered with the sound
of the orchestra, one of the coolest things about the concert was the way
airplanes would fly overhead in the nighttime sky and disappear into the
horizon of the surrounding hills--it was easy to just watch the skies during
the "Blue Danube" waltz and imagine that Cessna or LAPD helicopter
was the Orion space shuttle from Kubrick's space epic.
Williams next tackled a suite from his own Close Encounters of the
Third Kind, a welcome exploration of dissonance that was quite well
performed and over with all too quickly. Next Williams gave a practical
demonstration of how music is synchronized to screen imagery, conducting
cue segments from the scores to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Superman,
and E.T. while a movie screen showed sequences from all four
films. Although from where I was sitting the large screen looked about
the size of a postage stamp, it was great to see Raiders, Jaws and
Superman in their rightful place back on the big screen, and the
audience reaction to this segment of the performance was extremely enthusiastic.
After an intermission the sizable lightsaber-brandishing portion of
the audience was finally satisfied as Williams nearly brought them to their
feet with the title overture to Star Wars, followed by a series
of concert themes from all three Star Wars movies. These included
"Princess Leia's Theme," "The Asteroid Field," "Yoda's
Theme," "Parade of the Ewoks," "Luke and Leia,"
"The Cantina Band," and "The Forest Battle." Unfortunately,
this section of the concert was greeted with considerably less enthusiasm
from an audience that was nearly whipped into a frenzy by the Star Wars
title music. In this case I have to believe that technology has passed
by the composer's habit of creating concert pieces based on themes from
his film scores. In the case of the "Ewok" theme, "Forest
Battle" and Luke and Leia's melody from Return of the Jedi,
the audience appeared barely familiar with the low-key music, and "The
Asteroid Field," with its numerous repeated sections and the omission
of its opening, is such an erzatz, slice-and-dice rendition of the movie
cue that it's almost unrecognizable.
Between the semi-annual airings of these movies on the USA and Sci-Fi
channels, their availability on video and the high-profile Special Edition
reissues earlier this year, I'd venture to say that most people are more
familiar with the actual musical cues as heard in the movie than they are
with these concert arrangements. The biggest audience reaction came from
a surprisingly authentic-sounding reproduction of the "Cantina Band"
piece, which Williams felt obligated to explain to the audience--it was
clear the piece needed no introduction as it got a wild burst of applause.
Williams returned to the screening technique he had used before the
intermission, presenting what amounted to a suite from the Trilogy cued
up to various familiar scenes from the movie (interestingly, this was all
footage from the original versions, not the souped-up Special Editions).
With more familiar themes being heard (including the TIE Fighter attack
cue), this part of the concert got the audience back into the concert and
earned a standing ovation, resulting in an encore that had obviously been
well-prepared for, as a couple of stormtroopers appeared on the stage,
quickly joined by Darth Vader and Chewbacca (coming hot on the heels of
his triumph at the MTV movie awards). Williams's encore was wisely chosen:
"The Imperial March," one of the most memorable pieces of music
in the entire film series.
Still facing a standing ovation, Williams obliged the audience with
another take on the Star Wars overture, this time accompanied by
a gigantic fireworks show. The climax of this classic Hollywood display
included a couple of burning TIE Fighters atop the Bowl dome, followed
by the emergence of a 70-foot X-wing that shot proton torpedo-like fireworks
off its immense laser cannons along cables past the flanks of the audience
sections. It's safe to say that by this time the Star Wars-crazed
audience was reaching something approaching a state of Nirvana.
With the audience still on their feet, Williams calmed them down with
a dose of his adventure theme from Spielberg's The Lost World, then
sent them packing with some John Philips Sousa. The showmanship and performances
of this concert were some of the best I've seen; the L.A. Philharmonic
was just about flawless (with the exception of a couple of brutal wrong
notes in the "Ewok Parade" piece), and the sonic quality ranked
with some of the best orchestras I've heard Williams play with. It certainly
sent the Star Wars fans (myself guiltily included) out to their
shuttle buses happy.