Sydney, December 1, 2007

Saturday, December 1, 2007
Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arnie Roth

“The Music of John Williams”

Review by Peter Novakovich

On Saturday December 1, 2007 I saw the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform the all-Williams concert in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. I was at the matinee. All three of the scheduled shows were sold out.

The orchestra was expertly led by Grammy award winning composer Arnie Roth, who commented during proceedings how people were more impressed by his writing the music for the Barbie Princess movies than anything he may have done for Robert Altman. The concert was hosted by Guy Noble, a long term radio presenter on ABC Classic FM and himself a musician and conductor, with Australian productions ofPhantom of the Opera and Man of La Mancha to his conducting credit.

The concert kept to the order as shown in the programme, which was as follows:

Olympic Fanfare (1984)
Highlights from CE3K
Adventures on Earth from ET
Theme from Superman
Theme from Schindler’s List, featuing principal SSO violinist Fiona Ziegler
Theme from The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Harry’s Wondrous World from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Raiders of the Lost Ark.


Music from all six Star Wars films.

Main Title
Flag Parade
Due of the Fates
Across the Stars
Battle of the Heroes
The Imperial March
Princess Leia’s Theme
The Cantina Band (arr. by Roth)
Throne Room and End Titles

There was an encore (not listed) of the Nimbus2000/Quidditich Match cue from HP&TPS.

The arrangements (excl. the Cantina Band) from which Mr Roth conducted were the Hal Leonard Signature Series charts, which are the ones Mr Williams himself uses when he conducts.

The size of the orchestra was increased by about a dozen or so and the first 3 rows of the Concert Hall were taken out to make room for not only the extra players but the barrage of extra percussion, and the celeste.

This was a most entertaining and moving concert. It was the first time I heard the above cues played live by a full symphony orchestra. Were it not that the whole season had sold out I would have gone to hear it again that night. After hearing these cues for so many years either in the films or on LP/CD I thought I’d be jaded, but no. Hearing this music live, played well, and in a great accoustic environment really adds a whole new dimension to the listening experience. There is a power and majesty present that one can’t capture on CD. Furthermore I was hearing things that I had not heard before. e.g. in the Superman March when the celli take the lead and play the “secondary” theme of the march (not the love theme), I was able to hear the violin harmony for the first time. The percussion in The Lost World came across as more powerful and terrifying than in the recording when played live . And you really haven’t heard Duel of the Fates until you hear a brass chorale play the opening phrase live. Sure, there was no choir, but that didn’t take away the impact of the listening experience.

I made detailed notes on each of the pieces but in the interests of boredom I won’t reheash everything here. I’ll just go through some of the general material and raise specifics where necessary.

There was an intelligent use of tempo. Overall the tempi (tempoes?) were kept to what we are used to hearing in the recordings. However, occasionally there’d be a speeding up or slowing down which added to the effect and brought out nuances in the music that I hadn’t previously noticed. e.g. Across the Stars: when halfway through the piece the theme is played by the full orchestra the slower tempo allowed for a grander and more poignant feel than what one hears on the OST CD. The Imperial March was faster than usual and had all the more brutal effect for it, adding a military-style crispness. The Raiders March andStar Wars Main Title began at slightly faster speeds than what is recorded and the allegro/etto tempi gave a sense of panache to the themes. Princess Leia’s Theme was also played slightly slower than usual (which again added to the music), however, I thought the poor principal horn player was going to have an aneurism from having to play the theme in such a high register at the slower pace. The tempo of Schindler’s List let Ms Zeigler execute the theme with beauty and dignity, instead of lush mawkishness, with the rest of the strings perfectly balancing the accompaniment.

I should point out that all the solo playing was handled brilliantly. Kudos must also go to the ensemble playing of the entire orchestra, as each of the sections balanced each other well, so that nothing was drowned out (OK: there was one teensy weensy bit for about one and a half bars in only one loud cue but the band and conductor fixed it quickly!)

Comment should also be made of the SSO’s execution. We all know that Williams’s music and arrangements contain music meant for virtuoso playing. Well if it was difficult then the SSO didn’t show it: they cut through these passages like they played them in their sleep. Even the Quidditch Matchencore, which has some really evil passages for players, was done with aplomb. Occasionally there were some furrowed brows of concentration (e.g. the viola in the intro to Battle of the Heroes) but rarely so: they took something difficult and made it look easy, and they also played with great emotion.

A few other general (non musical) comments:

Guy Noble as presenter did a good line in quips throughout the show. Noble had the extreme back rows both behind and in front of the orchestra doing a Star Wars karaoke singalong duel. He mentioned how this was not only Williams’s 75th birthday, but also the 75th birthday of the SSO (hence the concerts), with each orchestra member being 75 and having good plastic surgery. To introduce Superman he came out wearing a Superman “S” singlet, with “S” boxers, “S” socks, and cape. There was some pleasant but not excessive banter between him and Arnie Roth.

For the Star Wars section Noble dressed as Darth Vader, whilst the foyer and the area between front row and podium filled with three StormTroopers and one Imperial Guard. Again, many quips followd at the expense of Star Wars and its characters (if Leia and Chewbacca got together what would their children look like? “Naboo” means Planet of Bad Hair; Yoda comes from Planet of Bad Syntax. C3P0 and R2D2 opened up a trendy cafe in Oxford St; This piece is led by the viola section, which is always a bad sign, etc ). Mr Roth began the Star Wars section by conducting with a red lightsaber, and the voice of Master Yoda warned us to turn off mobile phones and cameras (“Scare orchestra they will.”)

The programme book was well put together, with some thoughtful commentary on Williams’s composing approach. It wasn’t scared to refer to the works of previous composers to which some of Williams’s themes had a similarity. It was interesting that the programme noted how Williams held the record for having the most Oscar nominations, but then went on to say by the same token he also holds the record for having the most losses (or, “What an incredible loser!” to quote Guy Noble). I suppose they felt he could handle that sort of thing. Photos abounded from the films from which the scores were being played. There was nothing in the programme which we at the website do not already know, although there were consistent references to there possiby being more than six Star Wars movies being made. Do they know something we don’t? Or were they referring to the planned TV series?

I was amazed at the audience demographic: the concert drew persons literally from all ages. Apart from the variety of ages, there was a cross current of culture: there were the serious/regular symphony concert goers and there were also a lot of persons who seemed like it was the first time they had been to see a symphony orchestra, and I don’t mean the little kids. I mean persons who looked like they usually only went to see pub bands/rock acts. No matter, we all enjoyed the music. I suppose that it must say something for Williams’s music that it can cut across the cultural divide to reach so many age groups and tastes.

Congratulations to the SSO, Guy Noble, and Arnie Roth. Hopefully this will not be the only all-Williams concert they do.