John Williams in San Francisco: Reviews & Photos

September 16, 2013, San Francisco, CA
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by JOHN WILLIAMS
Steven Spielberg, special guest host



  • Hooray for Hollywood  (Richard A. Whiting) – with film
  • Suite from Far and Away
  • Three Pieces from Harry Potter
    “Hedwig’s Theme”
    “Nimbus 2000”
    “Harry’s Wonderful World”
  • “Dartmoor, 1912” from War Horse
  • Star Wars Main Title
  • Theme from Jaws
  • Steven Spielberg host
  • Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with film)
  • “The Circus Train Chase” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (with film)
  • “The Duel” from The Adventures of Tintin (with film)
  • Theme from Schindler’s List
  • “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • With Malie Towards None from Lincoln
  • The Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark

PHOTOS (Click to view original images)

jw-sf-2013Photo by Ray Cromwell

jw-sf2013groupPhoto by San Francisco Symphony

spielberg-williamsPhoto by Oscar Benjamin

Lecture small
Photo by ‘Nik’ (more available here)


  • Cat Taylor’s Mewsings – When John Williams walked onto the stage to open the program, he was greeted by a standing ovation. It was just the first of many that evening. Maestro Williams is 81 now and walks a bit more slowly, but like other great conductors before him, is removed from any infirmities of age when conducting a great orchestra like the San Francisco Symphony. – Full review
  • Endor Express – The moment John Williams took a step on stage he was greeted with the first of several well deserved standing ovations. The show began with Hooray for Hollywood with a video montage. The first half of the program also featured music from the films Far and Away, Harry Potter and Star Wars. The crowd erupted when the first few notes of the Star Wars main title began. – Full review (includes photos)
  • Entertainment Designer – You just can’t beat the combination of amazing talent, inspiring music and movie clips, and Spielberg and Williams in the flesh. But more importantly, San Francisco Symphony approached this experience with the proper respect for the content. – Full review


Concert Review by ‘diskobolus’ (original post)

I was fortunate enough to attend this concert. I’ve seen Williams around ten times and Spielberg introducing him twice, but the last time was at the 2006 Boston concerts, so it’s been a number of years. Two things were particularly exciting about the program – inclusion of music from new films in the past couple years, and seeing Spielberg in a relatively intimate space. I’ve only previously seen him at Tanglewood, which is a giant venue compared to Davies Hall. This intimate atmosphere turned out to be phenomenal in the second half.
Williams walked onto the stage to an immediate standing ovation. I’ve never witnessed this at any of his previous concerts or even at Davis Hall which I’ve been to at least 20 times. The tremendous reception lasted throughout the entire evening. My theory is that he has visited San Francisco so rarely in recent years that few people have ever heard him conduct, and in addition he only conducted one night, and the result is that diehard fans were the vast majority of people to get tickets. I recall the concert selling out the day that single tickets became available. Typically, even Friday and Saturday night concerts at Davies Hall have scattered empty seats, presumably due to last minute conflicts or absentee subscription holders. I literally didn’t see a single empty seat this night.
Hooray for Hollywood opened the concert, played above a montage of clips from classic films. My personal preference is not having video during montages if they have nothing specifically to do with the music. I’m there to listen, not watch random scenes from films. Williams began with a great deal of energy and his conducting strength is still there. He concluded with the same flourish and a genuine smile for the orchestra. A Far and Away extended suite came next, more subdued and sweeping compared to the first piece. I could personally do without this one since that score isn’t my favorite.
Williams then introduced 3 pieces from Harry Potter. I sensed that he spoke slowly and deliberately, almost as though he had trouble recalling them. That was worrisome. At any rate, he began with Hedwig’s Theme, which is of course phenomenal and very commonly performed. Huge energy from the orchestra. Nimbus 2000 from the Children’s Suite followed, which frankly was a bizarre choice. Being identical to the previous piece in thematic content, the piece is scored exclusively for woodwinds which sounded extremely weak compared to the full orchestra that had just played the same melodies. I understand wanting a more subdued piece in between the two soaring concert arrangements, so why not Dobby the House Elf, or even better, A Window to the Past? Finally, Harry’s Wondrous World was spectacular as always.
War Horse‘s Dartmoor, 1912 was the first of the newer pieces on the program. I’m not as familiar with this score so it was a pleasure to experience it without having the music already internalized. If it’s not already obvious, the program consistently varies the tone, bookending more quiet pieces like this one with huge, soaring ones. Thus, Williams followed with the Star Wars / Blockade Runner concert arrangement. The audience unexpectedly burst into applause during the first few bars, which perplexes me – the program is in front of you, so how is it a surprise?
The second half started with a surprise – instead of the first few notes of Close Encounters, we got those from Jaws – once again eliciting wild applause from the audience. I’m torn between my approval of the crowd’s enthusiasm and my annoyance of their noisemaking. At any rate, the Jaws theme was unexpected and fun. Following, Spielberg came on to a thunderous ovation. The theme of his narration was a more or less standard pitch for the importance of the score’s role in a film. He’s occasionally appeared with Williams at similar events over the years with the same speeches.
For Close Encounters, Spielberg mentioned music as a central communication channel between humans and the visitors. The excerpts accompanied the film clips, which were Barry’s abduction and then various scenes from the finale. In this case, even though I don’t personally prefer it, the addition of video actually makes sense, unlike with montages. Similarly, Spielberg first introduced the train car sequence from Last Crusade, rolling the entire sequence with dialogue but no score, and then Williams conducted the sequence with score, to illustrate the difference the score makes. This is one of those moments when Williams is truly the master at work. My seat was at the perfect angle such that I could actually see his video monitor with the visual cues, so rather than watch the film on the big screen, I chose to observe Williams constantly adjusting the tempo to synchronize the orchestra, speeding up or slowing down, all the while as he followed the actual pages of the score. These were marvelous moments.
There was Spielberg to observe as well. He carried great enthusiasm throughout the performance, except growing somber when introducing the theme from Schindler’s List. I watched him sit in complete, absolute stillness as Barantschik played the solos. Spielberg’s head was bowed as if praying silently. His face was slightly obscured to me during these moments, and I could only imagine what was going through his head. Was he perhaps visualizing scenes from his own film, or reliving the time that Perlman first played this melody for him, or simply meditating? In stark contrast, during Adventures on Earth, Spielberg’s love for the music was clearly visible. He nodded his head and moved his lips in sync with the soaring notes, almost forgetting that he was on stage. I believe Spielberg truly enjoys these events – as a director, he likely doesn’t have that many chances to sit next to his lifelong friend, surrounded by one of the world’s best orchestras playing the music he must know and love very much.
Williams seemed tired but appreciative as the program drew to a close. Again, the crowd came to their feet in a thunderous ovation. As a first encore, Williams had chosen the cue for Lincoln‘s second inaugural address. I recall that Spielberg referred to his film and Williams’ score as requiring “a tempered approach.” I’d been hoping for a piece from Lincoln and this was such a beautiful choice. Truly a treat. The second and final encore was Raiders. There is a phenomenon I’ll perhaps dub “The Raiders Surprise” – in which an uninformed but enthusiastic audience does not recognize the piece until the fanfare arrives in the 5th measure and only then interrupts the piece with applause. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon on at least three or four occasions.

I have to say, this concert was one of the most memorable I’ve ever been to. Even though Williams didn’t have the boundless energy that he’s displayed in the past, it was a pleasure to witness him still in command of a great orchestra and playing beautiful new music. And of course, a rare chance to witness Spielberg rapturously appreciating the music of his own films. Truly wonderful.

Concert Review by ‘Nik’ (original post)

I just wanted to join the comments on how magical this evening was.  I was in the front row, off center to the left, about ten feet from Mr. Spielberg.  What a challenge deciding whether to watch Mr. Williams conduct, watch Mr. Spielberg listen to the music, or to merely lose myself in the music.  I did all three, of course, constantly shifting between the three.  Some highlights for me were Far and Away, War Horse, and Jaws of course.  Watching Mr. Williams’s expressions as he conducted with such an authoritive attention to detail, at times reaching out to various sections of the orchestra, gesturing for them to dig deep into a particular passage, was magic.  Also, watching Mr. Spielberg’s expression as he nodded to himself during the soft notes toward the end of Close Encounters, or how it looked like he was stabbed in the heart during the high note during the violin solo toward the end of Schindler’s List, or actually making eye contact with Mr. Spielberg and exchanging goofy enthusiastic grins during The Raiders March…all incredible moments.  Then, to cap it off, I confess that when they were walking off stage I couldn’t help but call out “Thank you!” when they were three feet away, at which point Mr. Spielberg turned and said “Thank YOU.”  An unforgettable evening in so many regards.  Anyway, thanks for letting me gush and blab.  I recorded the whole thing on audio and it turned out pretty well, but I’m not sure I can post the whole thing to Youtube.  Any ideas?  Here are a few pictures I took as well...

Concert Review by ‘indy4’ (original post)

Just got back…the concert was great!  I was seated Center Terrace behind the orchestra (where the choir would stand).  We got a great view of the maestro (although during the video clips the screen covered the top of his head).  I’ve only ever seen him conduct the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, but I felt the performances were a lot stronger–faster tempos, less mistakes, better mix.  Part of that is probably due to being inside a concert hall vs outdoors.  Also the brass players (especially trumpets) were playing into their music stands, so the sound reflect off the stands and right onto us.  I loved it–as a trombone player, I am more than happy with a brass-heavy performance.  It was surreal to see Spielberg so close and hear him talk in person.

The program was the same one listed online, except for the addition of Jaws Theme right after intermission and, for encores, With Malie Towards None (retooled concert version) and Raiders March.  The only weird programming decision was playing Hedwig’s Theme and then directly after “Nimbus 2000” from the Children’s Suite.  The former features the Nimbus theme extensively, so hearing its concert version directly after was a little odd.  As a brass player I would’ve loved to hear “Quidditch” instead of Nimbus, and it would have solved weird programming decision.

My favorite was probably Far and Away, since I’ve never heard it live before (it was not the violin solo version available on Greatest Hits).  I also don’t think I’ve ever heard the suite–it was all very familiar, I think it was just the first track of the OST plus the End Credits.  War Horse was beautiful as always, with great flute solos.  Indy’s First Adventure was really fun–I’m glad they did the entire scene, instead of cutting it off midway like they did on the LC OST.  There were also a few new bars (besides the slightly tweaked ending) when Indy falls into the lion’s train car.  E.T. was also fantastic.  Really they all were, it’s not even worth listing my favorites because sooner or later I will list them all.  Violin soloist was beautiful on Schindler’s List.

The audience reaction seemed to be more enthusiastic than at the Bowl–again, that’s probably mostly due to being indoors versus outdoors.  While I was fully expected laughter during the first few notes of Jaws, the enthusiasm and strength of it surprised me, so much that I started laughing too.  Spielberg said “We’re definitely coming back to SF!” during one of the many standing ovations we gave–I wonder if he says that at every gig.  I hope not, because I would love to do this again.  Overall it was a fantastic performance and a really really fun night.