Orange County, May 14 & 15, 2004

Orange County Performing Arts Center
Friday, May 14 & Saturday, May 15, 2004

The Pacific Symphony Orchestra Conducted by JOHN WILLIAMS

From the Orange County Register:

Beyond the silver screen
Film composer John Williams leads the Pacific Symphony in an invigorating evening that didn’t need movie images. 

The Orange County Register

Film music doesn’t always work in the concert hall. Divorced of the images that inspired and shaped it, that gave it form, it can wander hither and yon without rhyme or reason, at best serving as a mere mnemonic device for the listener to recall the absent imagery.

But John Williams, who conducted the Pacific Symphony in an evening of his film music, Friday in Segerstrom Hall, put it another way. He said that the concert offered the opportunity to hear the music “without the distraction of the film,” thereby implying a certain independence at least for his own creations.

On this occasion, the film music selected from Williams’ vast back catalog did quite well, thank you, sans celluloid. The audience certainly gobbled it up enthusiastically and at least o­ne critic enjoyed himself beyond expectations. The agenda featured many of the usual suspects, sure, during which the listener’s mind provided missing images, but even the less familiar music turned out concert-worthy here.

John Williams’ film music is extremely well made. It has a technical finish and learned accomplishment that most film music cannot boast of. The orchestrations (he does all his own) are superbly becoming to an orchestra, rich and resonant in the lower registers, pinging and brilliant in the brass and percussion, lush and meaty in the strings. Indeed, Friday’s concert seemed something of an object lesson in writing for the strings, so consistently pleasing was their sound.

There were short excerpts to be heard ? the Tribute to the Film Composer, which dovetails familiar snippets from dozens of movie scores, o­nly some by Williams; or the robust theme music to NBC’s Nightly News ? but also extended pieces which worked as extended pieces, long dramatic arcs created from shorter film cues. o­ne such was his Selections from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a terrific concert piece that Williams also led at Disney Hall’s opening. Beginning with lugubrious dissonance that recalls early Penderecki, it journeys through lush Romanticism, triumphant statement of sculpted main theme, and quiet reminiscence ? it’s got real sweep.

His “Suite from JFK” ? with movements titled “Theme,” “Motorcade” and “Arlington” ? proves a fitting, somber remembrance, the assassination insinuated disturbingly rather than pictured graphically, and sentimentality kept at bay.

Williams’ music is an irony-free zone, and he does nobility better than most living composers. The evening reminded us how well he can write ceremonial music. A listener’s heart rate picks up despite itself with the Olympic Fanfare and Theme. In its granitic fanfares and pulsing military rhythms underpinning soaring theme, o­ne recognizes certain Williams formulas, but he usually makes them work anyhow. The content outweighs the conventions.

The second half provided evidence of the composer’s mimicking abilities, with the Irish folk music-flavored score to Far and Away and the cool ’60s jazz of Catch Me If You Can(here arranged into a kind of concerto for alto sax called “Escapades from ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ “)

Williams served as gracious host, offering quips and anecdotes. For instance, after Steven Spielberg first screened a music-less Schindler’s List for him, a shaken Williams told the director that he needed a better composer to write the score. “I know,” replied Spielberg, “but they’re all dead.” Still, Williams’ answer to the challenge was the “Theme to ‘Schindler’s List’ ” (played here without tears by Raymond Kobler), which is poignant simplicity itself.

Several of the pieces had abrupt endings, mere major chord tags that added a period or an exclamation point for the concert hall. Oh well, Wagner had the same problem.

As a conductor, Williams reminded o­ne more of Richard Strauss, who used to look at his watch while leading an orchestra. Williams wiped his brow with a handkerchief during o­ne piece, and generally led calmly, clearly and straightforwardly. He’d been here and done that. But the method worked: The music spoke for itself, neither overly sweet nor bombastic.

The Pacificers (many of them studio players) sounded like a million bucks. The style was second nature to them and the playing was enthusiastic yet poised. The little light show projected o­n the back wall seemed unnecessary ? like that sand in a Hula Hoop ? but not distracting enough to be offensive. Williams is back in three weeks, by the way, to share a program with Carl St. Clair. Among the works o­n offer will be his non-cinematic Tuba Concerto.