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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.


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