NSO scores with Hollywood
By Jen Waters
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Composer John Williams brought the magic of Hollywood to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts last week. Although the National Symphony Orchestra is best known for presenting works by classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, its music director, Leonard Slatkin, wanted to bridge the gap between classical music and Tinseltown.
As part of “Soundtracks, Music and Film, A National Symphony Orchestra Festival,” which finishes today, Mr. Slatkin enlisted the assistance of Mr. Williams, who has composed the scores for 19 Steven Spielberg films. Mr. Williams conducted the National Symphony Orchestra during three of the festival’s concerts, “A Portrait of John Williams,” “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.,” and “In Synch: How Do They Do It?”
The first performance in the series, “A Portrait of John Williams,” began with two works Mr. Williams wrote that are not associated with movies — “For Seiji!,” written for Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and “The Five Sacred Trees,” commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Although excellent compositions, they hardly fit with the theme of the festival.
The audience seemed more attentive during the second half of the concert, when Mr. Williams conducted “Flight to Neverland” from “Hook,” excerpts from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Shark Cage Fugue” from “Jaws,” the march from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Adventures on Earth” from “E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial.”
Onstage, Mr. Williams recalled how when he had difficulty recording music to the onscreen action in the latter scenes of “E.T.,” Mr. Spielberg edited the film to match the music. “I was having a devilish time getting the music to fit the film,” Mr. Williams said. “[Mr. Spielberg] made me look better than I otherwise would have.”
Violinist Nurit Bar-Josef provided the most beautiful performance of the evening, with her performance of the solo from the “Schindler’s List” theme. The score for Mr. Spielberg’s landmark film won Mr. Williams his fifth Academy Award.
As an encore, Mr. Williams included “Across the Stars” from “Episode II: Star Wars,” as well as the original “Star Wars” theme. Both pieces sounded right at home as they rang through the center. After all, it was John F. Kennedy who first promised to put an American on the moon. For the Beltway news junkies in the audience, Mr. Williams made a point of conducting his NBC News theme, saying, “If you don’t make it home for the news, this might substitute.”
“Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.,” performed on Jan. 24, mostly included scores from the 1930s and 1940s, the Golden Age of movies. Mr. Williams conducted pieces such as “Tara’s Theme” from the “Gone With the Wind,” “The Inquirer” from “Citizen Kane” and “Cathy’s Theme” from “Wuthering Heights.”
The standout of the three concerts conducted by Mr. Williams was “In Synch: How Do They Do It?” The Jan. 25 event started with Mr. Slatkin and Mr. Williams demonstrating how movies were scored during the silent era of film. The two played a piano duet that matched the scenes from old black-and-white movies projected on a large screen above them.
Then, Mr. Williams conducted a piece he arranged called “Monsters, Beauties and Heroes,” which featured character themes from films such as “King Kong,” “Jaws,” “Casablanca,” “An Affair to Remember,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and “Superman.”
For the next five pieces, director Stanley Donen joined Mr. Williams onstage, as the symphony performed music from the films he created, such as “You’re All the World to Me” from “Royal Wedding,” “Barn Raising Dance” from “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “I Like Myself” from “It’s Always Fair Weather,” “The Worry Song” from “Anchors Aweigh” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
As the symphony played these pieces, excerpts from the corresponding films flickered on the movie screen above, with the music flawlessly matching the images. “It’s incredible to watch it being played absolutely in synchronization with what we did,” gushed Mr. Donen.
After intermission, Mr. Williams used the beginning scenes of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” to illustrate how he scores films. For a four-minute clip such as this one, he finds about 50 moments to which the music must be perfectly matched. He calls these “synch points.” When making these decisions, he discusses the possible accents and tone of the scene with the director. In the end, a musical event occurs about every 5 seconds.
Referring to the restrictions imposed by film as “friends,” Mr. Williams explained that the constraints of the medium actually help him create the music, much like structure assists the composer of a fugue.
With the concerts attracting many people who probably wouldn’t attend a classical music event, all three events were either completely sold out or close to it. The heavy turnout prompted Mr. Slatkin to announce that he is planning a second “Soundtracks” event.
Because film scores work almost subliminally — you usually don’t notice them unless they’re bad or mismatched — this series of musical teach-ins was especially revelatory and valuable.
If you were lucky enough to have attended, you’ll never listen to what you see on-screen the same way again.
WHAT: Final concert of “Soundtracks, Music and Film, A National Symphony Orchestra Festival” is “A Portrait of John Williams”
WHEN: 8 tonight
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall