Concert Reviews – ‘From Star Wars to Harry Potter: Off to the Movies with John Williams’


May 15, 2014 – York, PA
May 17, 2015 – West Chester, PA
The Pennsylvania Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Butterman


  • Superman March from Superman: The Movie
  • Across the Stars from Attack of the Clones
  • Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back
  • Cowboys Overture from The Cowboys
  • Great Westerns Suite (arr. Tvzik) – The Magnificent Seven, How the West Was Won, Silverado, Dances with Wolves
  • Harry’s Wondrous World from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Flight to Neverland from Hook
  • Main Theme from Jaws
  • Prelude from Psycho
  • Viktor’s Tale from The Terminal
  • Adventures on Earth from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Main Theme from Schindler’s List
  • Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark


May 15, 2015
The Pullo Center, Penn Sate York, Pennsylvania State University, York, PA
Review by Peter Anschutz

The concert was not so much a showcase of the work of John Williams as it was a tribute to the man himself. If concerts can have a thesis in the same way an academic paper does, the thesis of this concert could easily have been that while John Williams is certainly influenced by those who came before him, he possess an incredible talent for utilizing the entire orchestra to full effect, regardless of the nature of the music, making his work unique.

The concert began with three themes – “Superman March,” “Across the Stars”, and “Imperial March” – featuring leitmotifs, which Williams employs so well in many of his film scores. The music director, Michael Butterman, explained that the leitmotif began with Wagner’s operas, and was brought into film by other composers from that part of Europe; for example, Korngold and Max Steiner. Williams, then, adopted the idea from them.

The next two pieces reached back to Williams’ early work in the film industry, specifically his overture from The Cowboys and how he drew inspiration from the great Western themes of Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven) and Alfred Newman (How the West was Won). The second of these two pieces was “The Great Westerns Suite”, featuring themes from the two films just mentioned, as well themes from Silverado (Bruce Broughton) and Dances with Wolves (John Barry). While this piece was obviously not written by Williams, it pays homage to the genera that Williams dabbled with early in his career.

To close out the first half of the concert, the orchestra performed “Harry’s Wondrous World”, which gets back to the idea of a leitmotif created by Williams, which the successive composers of the Harry Potter franchise carried over into their own works. Following intermission, the orchestra played “Flight to Neverland” from Hook.

The next two pieces again focused on how Williams may have been influenced by earlier film composers. First, the orchestra played “The Shark Theme” from – what else? – Jaws. Just as an aside, I find it interesting how the theme now elicits chuckles from the audience, the complete opposite of its original purpose. The idea Williams employs of alternating notes played in a staccato fashion in order to produce tension was also used by Bernard Harrmann in Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho. The orchestra played the “Prelude” to that film to show the connection.

While Williams certainly draws inspiration from the composers who came before him, he is able to blend all these ideas into his own palette. We all know Williams is not limited to one genre; in fact, he’s not even limited to film music. This is what separates him from other film composers. He is able to utilize the entire orchestra to create unique music for a wide varied of projects. This is what the remainder of the concert highlighted.

The final four pieces demonstrate Williams’ wide range of talent. The first, “Viktor’s Tale” from The Terminal, “sounds very Krakozhian”, as Michael Butterman put it after conducting the piece, referencing the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia created for the film. Next came “Adventures on Earth” from E.T., a rather fanciful piece. Then came a dramatic shift with the third piece, the theme from Schindler’s List, which never fails to bring up images of the Holocaust. Finally, the concert closed with another of Williams’ famous marches, “The Raiders March” from the Indiana Jones series.

So, rather than simply playing all of Williams most famous pieces (you may have noticed that the Star Wars main title was not played), the concert was actually a musical exposition of how other composers influenced John Williams, and how he used that influence to create his own style; it was kind of like a musical research paper presentation, if you will, with Michael Butterman as the presenter of this thesis, and the orchestra as his musical PowerPoint.

The orchestra itself is a fairly new group whose mission focuses primarily on music education of children in grades 4 through 8 in the region of eastern Pennsylvania. I must admit, I had lowered my expectations for their performance slightly, particularly since I’m accustomed to attending concerts of the well-established Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I am pleased to say, however, that the Pennsylvania Philharmonic’s performance exceeded these expectations.

It was clear the musicians enjoyed playing this concert. Several times I saw violinists communicating non-verbally their approval of the orchestra’s performance through smiles, winks, and nods to each other. This was especially evident in the more fun pieces to play like The Cowboys overture. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed that obvious chemistry between the musicians in a concert before. There were also several solos featured, most notably Doris Hall-Gulati playing the clarinet flawlessly for “Viktor’s Tale”, and Concertmaster Genaro Medina for his moving violin solo for Schindler’s List. The performance of the orchestra as a whole – with the possible exception of the brass occasionally drowning out the strings/woodwinds who were playing the main melody – was almost album quality. Judging by the “wows” I heard around me after nearly every piece, I think the rest of the audience would agree.

Michael Butterman clearly enjoyed conducting as well. His short talks between most of the pieces (which I’ve more or less summarized in the section above) were also very interesting. As someone who loves music and the work of John Williams, I found the way Mr. Butterman discussed Williams’ style very thought provoking. Fellow JWfans and I are familiar with the charges that Williams plagiarizes other composers (and even himself). The way Mr. Butterman explains it, however, makes clear that Williams has been undeniably influenced by other composers (and who hasn’t?), but Williams has his own unique range and style that makes him his own man.

The only real complaint I have is that there was no encore performance. Mr. Butterman and the orchestra took several final bows to cheers and loud applause, but then the house lights came on and the orchestra began packing up without playing just one more piece. Now, I’m not exactly a regular concert-goer, but the handful I’ve been to all had at least one encore piece; this concert, however, was truly over once they played the last piece listed in the program. I heard a few disappointed “awws” around me.

The fact that we wanted more at the concert’s end is clearly indicative of how well the Pennsylvania Philharmonic performed the music of John Williams. To play his challenging music as well as they did is certainly a rewarding experience for the musicians, I could see that on their faces; and to listen to such a fine performance as theirs was an extremely pleasurable experience. If I were in the business of awarding stars for a performance, this one would get four out of five.

May 17, 2015
Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, West Chester, PA
Review by Timothy Friel

I have a confession to make.  Before stumbling upon an ad for this concert online, I had never heard of the Pennsylvania Philharmonic.  There are some smaller local orchestras that I am familiar with, but this one escaped my periphery.  The explanation for this, perhaps, was stated in the opening remarks by its founder, Scott Robinson, when he clarified that they were a non-profit orchestra that concentrated on going out into Pennsylvania districts in order to work directly with schools.  Their goal is to help strengthen the musical education of students and children.  Most of their concerts are not public performances.

For their spring pops concert, they went with programing film music, specifically focused around the ever-popular and culturally omnipresent John Williams.

The concert was located on the campus of West Chester University in Asplundh Concert Hall, and despite a bit of heaviness in the air, the day was bright and welcoming.

When I arrived, you could tell right away that they were making this an event.  They encouraged people, through advertisements on their website, to come dressed in costume.    There were young wizards and fedora-wearing action heroes scuttling around their sidekicks (parents).  The excitement of the occasion seemed to infect the adults as well; a grown man dressed as Mad-Eye Moody, equipped with a persuasive fake eye, stood casually in the ticket line with his son.  There was a sense of community atmosphere that is lacking in most orchestral concerts I attend.

They also had posters of several films in the lobby to set the mood and a neat green screen setup where you could be photographed and then inserted into scenes with Stormtroopers, Superman, and, if you posed convincingly enough, act as a reimagined Indian Jones escaping a famously determined boulder.

The 60-member orchestra was set, the 1200 capacity hall was modestly filled, and the first half of the afternoon took flight with the main march from ‘Superman’.  This immediately set the tone and expectations for the rest of the performance.  It was an indicator of good things to come.  Some nice inclusions were the Cowboys Overture and a suite from other such westerns as The Magnificent Seven, How the West Was Won, Silverado and Dances with Wolves.  The acoustics were pleasant, not too dry sounding, and the orchestra projected well given their size.  The strings and percussion in particular played with zest during this stretch.

The conductor, Michael Butterman, was very engaging and, knowing his audience, his lighthearted personality appeared to match the mission of the ensemble.  There was a moment early on when the tux-clad maestro declared that it was too hot, removed his jacket, and convinced the concertmaster to do like-wise.  Naturally, the rest of the men followed their lead.  They all spent the rest of the concert showing off their cummerbunds.  Later, during the final selection before intermission, the conductor was given a wand as a more fitting conducting tool for Harry’s Wondrous World.  The toy made some type of noise when waved, which brought some well-earned laughter from the audience and musicians when he brought the wand down to start the piece.  Realizing it may not work, he exchanged it for the more favorable and trusty baton.

Film music still has the unfortunate stigma of being unintellectual or unworthy of the concert hall, but Mr. Butterman showed a good understanding of the ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, and the inherent and intricate complexity in Williams’ writing and orchestration.  The band was on point, very much in synch, and showed considerable rhythmic adeptness.  He would also communicate to the audience occasionally with a microphone to briefly introduce certain pieces.  By extension, he showed his knowledge of the material and its history.

The second half began with a piece from one of my all-time favorite Williams scores, ‘Hook’.  Flight to Neverland was as enchanting and uplifting as ever.  There were some featured moments for soloists, including Viktor’s Tale from ‘The Terminal’ and the Theme from ‘Schindler’s List’, performed by their principal clarinetist, Doris Hall-Gulati, and concertmaster, Genaro Medina, respectively.  Both of these showcased the remarkable level of skill that the orchestras has with its members.

The magic continued with Adventures on Earth from ‘E.T.’, albeit in a shortened version missing the more emotional middle section.

I’ve heard these pieces many times, and while there may not have been any new musical discoveries with the Imperial March or Main Title from ‘Jaws’, it was fun, due in no small part by Mr. Butterman and the palpable enjoyment his players.  The orchestra had many young faces among their ranks.  I caught many of them smiling widely or beaming during familiar passages or themes.  Their exuberance and clear love of the material was contagious.  The audience applauded appreciatively and lovingly after each break.

The day ended with the Raiders March (there was no encore).  As I was exiting the hall, a father and young son I had recognized from earlier stepped out from their row; the man patted him on the head and said, “Pretty good huh?”  The son responded with an enthusiastic “Yup!” and took a fedora he was holding, placed it on his head, and continued on ahead of me, undoubtedly to wrap himself in adventure in search for some lost artifact.