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John Williams in Chicago Concert

by Doug Adams

Perhaps part of the appeal of film music is that, under a certain cockeyed view, it's the only element of movies which is "real." Granted, the prospect of composing music that pertains to spaceships, literary characters, and fictionalized far-away lands is just as fake and constructed as actors talking about them, conceptual artists sketching them, and so on. But music, content aside, is still real. The sounds we hear came from a human's mind and fingertips; the performances came from actual trained musicians holding genuine objects of metal and wood. Music in film bridges the gap between conceptualization and actualization. There may be no real person named Indiana Jones, but John Williams can still write a tune that we can point to and say, "Look, that theme is about Indiana Jones." In an odd way, it moves these phony ideas one step closer to reality--and let's face it, much of the appeal of film (even documentary filmmkaing) is that it's an escape. It allows us to stretch out of our own lives and touch something beyond that which we either can or will experience. Even reflective, "difficult" art allows us to analyze the nature of ourselves or our surroundings in a safe, constructed environment. Imagine, then, the effect of seeing film music performed live. Now, not only is it the "real" shadow of a fantastical idea, but it's unfolding in front of you. It's not a CD of a "real" person making music, it's the firsthand article.

I'm a child of the 1970s. I grew up on the same sci-fi adventure films as most children of that period, most of them scored by John Williams. Each time I've been able to watch Williams conduct, it's struck me that it's as close to realizing my "fake" childhood memories as I'm likely to get. This past weekend, I attended a concert featuring Williams conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois. A concert like this creates an odd dichotomy. There is always the urge to inspect the musicianship on display, from the compositional techniques to the performances. However, the thrill of witnessing the creation (actually, recreation to the nth degree) of this music is undeniable. No matter how I suppress it, there will always be a part of me thrilled to hear the Star Wars theme played by a live symphony orchestra. I may me able to recognize and relate a lousy performance, but there's always a smile in the back of my mind.

Fortunately, performances were not a huge problem with the CSO. Last weekend's concert marked the second time Williams has conducted this orchestra--though to be accurate, it was not the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as we know them from recordings. During the summer, musicians from the CSO are divided among a number of projects, which means that the Ravinia Festival fills many spots with substitute players. Add to this the fact that precious little rehearsal time was dedicated to Williams' music (as us the general practice with summer programs like this), and you'll surely find a few performance mistakes here and there. Nonetheless, the program was better performed than Williams' previous outing with the symphony to years ago.

The first half of this show was dedicated to other composers' music. The concert began with Samuel Barber's Overture to the School for Scandal. As is his practice, Williams conducted the work slower than it's usually taken, and while the performance was tentative in spots, Barber's wonderful harmonies still shone through. Next up was an unprogrammed Gershwin lullaby, appropriated from an unfinished string quartet. Williams was then joined by violinist, Joshua Bell for two more Gershwin selections: Porgy and Bess Fantasy (which Williams commissioned Alexander Courage to arrange) and Embraceable You.

The second half of the program featured strictly music by Williams. The concert version of "Adventures on Earth" from E.T. led off, followed by the "Suite from Jane Eyre" and a relatively new concert arrangement of the Lost World theme (which is quite fun and well developed, for those who haven't heard it). Next was the first concert performance of the theme from Seven Years in Tibet--the same arrangement from the opening track of the soundtrack CD. John Sharp's solo cello was nicely nuanced, but not quite of Yo-Yo Ma caliber. "Throne Room and Finale" from Star Wars closed the program, with "Raiders March" following as an encore. Throughout Williams was his amiable best, always quick with the self-derisive quip in between numbers.

Sure the brass stammered here and there, and the Ravinia stage tends to project the back instruments distressingly more than the front (which is why triangle rolls tended to cover the entire violin section!), but there's really not much point in reviewing the performances--which were certainly competent. The enjoyment of a concert like this is hearing the music played live, to see it interpreted by the same mind that dreamt it up, and to be able blur that line between reality and non-reality for just a little while.

Somewhere, there are probably more analytical observations begging to me made, but for once I'd rather just sit back and enjoy the show.

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