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
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
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.