Philadelphia, July 8, 2005

Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Friday, July 8, 2005
The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by David Amado

‘Star Wars and Other Movie Favorites’

Concert Review by Tim Friel

With the exception of an ambulance, a plane, and a helicopter, any other minimal distractions came from the orchestra, not least from Maurice Ravel.

Let me give you a general idea of what the venue is if you are not familiar with the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It’s considered an outdoor venue, in which the main seating area is more or less a pavilion, covered with a roof, but open at the sides.  There is also open grass seating at the very back.

I got to the concert about 20 minutes before it was set to start, and was positioned in an Orchestra Box about 18 rows back and center.  The first thing I heard was the xylophonist playing some of “Quidditch, Third Year” and was immediately brimming with excitement.  A man and his two children were sitting in front of my father and I, and was curious to gage their reactions to some of the music that was to follow.  Mere moments before everything commenced, I looked around to see the rest of the audience, and was sadden and somewhat surprised that half the seats were empty (if I had looked at it as though it was half full then maybe I would’ve been happier).

The young conductor, David Amado, came out and got things going quickly.  The concert started with an excerpt from The Magnificent Seven which was played fantastically.  I’m sure most of us are familiar with this theme, as it’s probably the o­ne Elmer Bernstein is known for the most o­n the whole, including people who are ignorant about film scores.

The next thing o­n the list was Psycho, a suite for strings, which before playing, Amado described as “icy”.  Oddly, the first two pieces came from movies that were released in 1960, though the former composer was nominated for an Academy Award while Bernard Hermann was left to play in the mud.  The suite was broken out like this:

I. Prelude
II. The Madhouse
III. The Murder

Very nicely played, though the tempo of “The Murder” was a little too fast for my liking, and didn’t give enough time for the horror elements to soak in.

Next up was Korngold’s Overture to The Sea Hawk, which I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard before.  Now, before you go and accuse me of blasphemy, or compare me to a serial tree rapist while burning an effigy, please take note:  I plan o­n picking up a copy of this score as soon as possible.  My exposure to Korngold was primarily through his classical concert music (i.e. Symphony in F#, Violin Concerto in D major…), and I’m glad to say I will soon be joining the many ranks that appreciate his film scores.

David Amado was very friendly and seemed very comfortable in front of the scant crowd.  He struck me as very personable and funny, speaking to the audience at three major sections of the concert.  The second of these occurred when the orchestra, and the audience, took a break from traditional film score and plunged into what the conductor referred to as “music stolen by Hollywood”, with the first piece being made famous by “everyone’s favorite cartoon vermin…..Mickey Mouse”.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a work I enjoy immensely, and find it to be o­ne of the most challenging listening experiences because of the sheer complexity of the orchestrating and constantly changing color and dynamics.  It was played beautifully by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Which leads me to the next piece, Bolero.  Let me get this out of the way in hopes of tempering your view o­n the proceeding remarks, so you’re more prepared to face my opinion.  I hate the Bolero.  The last 5 minutes cannot salvage the first 10.  It was obvious from their reaction that Ravel plainly did not think of the well-being of the two children in front of me while writing it.  Amado’s o­nly thought of the piece was two words…. “Bo Derek”, and she’s o­nly somewhat better then the music itself.  Even Ravel hated it after a while and wished he never wrote it, describing it himself as a piece for orchestra “without music”.  Regardless, the Orchestra played it quite ably and I especially want to shake the snare drummer’s hand, for he is truly mighty.

Then it was time for the intermission, during which time they allowed the people with grass seating to join the rest of the general area.  This was a nice move considering it rained for about 18 hours prior to the concert.  I was starting to get amped up as people started filing back to their seats, and heard little kids humming the Star Wars theme, and parents reassuring their kids that, yes, Harry Potter was still o­n the bill.

Without speaking, Amado took to the podium and immediately launched into The Raiders March.  This was unbelievably taut and well played.  It was nice to hear this version, because the last time I had the opportunity, John Williams was conducting, but it was the March from “The Last Crusade”.  What followed was a warm and hearty applause, and the reasons were clear what the audience came to see.

Amado spoke for the third and last time before the next piece, and mentioned that it was at this movie he had his first date, and was shocked that he didn’t have worse memories of it.  Adventures o­n Earthfrom “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” was absolutely phenomenal.  It was played slowly and deliberately, very much unlike the recorded version for the film.  But it was nice to hear it this way, because you could catch every single note, and this enabled Amado to quicken the tempo toward the end for a great and thrilling conclusion.  I could tell that Williams had a better reach to children, which was proof enough o­n the faces of the little o­nes in front of me.

Then came what I was most anxious to hear.  Suite from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,which was listed in the playbill like this:

I. Witches, Wands, and Wizards
II. Aunt Marge’s Waltz
III. The Knight Bus
IV. A Bridge to the Past
V .Double Trouble

This is not quite how it was played and more importantly, “Double Trouble” never came, as promised.  “Witches, Wands, and Wizards”, is a generically titled, and basically a note for note version of – “Quidditch, Third Year” – The end of “Secrets of the Castle” (Bird Flight/flute theme)  – “Snowball Fight”.  The real problem with the way this panned out is that there were no proper segues or pauses.  Imagine hearing the thunderous Quidditch music (which was glorious) going, without break, into that flute run.  As a result, the Orchestra didn’t seem to be o­n time with each other, though I originally thought that was an effect of the acoustics given the nature of the venue.  It then recovered with a great rendition of “Snowball Fight”.  “Aunt Marge’s Waltz” was decent, but unfortunately nothing to rave about, and was slightly tarnished with the unnecessary use of a slide whistle during the climax which made me question, and want to consult, the sheet music o­n the stand.

This is where things got strange.  I was expecting to hear some jazz fusion next, but instead, received an earful of countrified tuneage.  The very pastoral “Past” theme was executed perfectly and was a combination of “A Window to the Past” and the last part of “Finale” with a touch of new orchestration to connect them.  Then came “The Knight Bus”, which I would have voted against including in the suite, because I felt the audience really pulling away o­n this o­ne (properly scaring the bejesus out of the kids in my box).  It sounded even more confusing as a live performance, but audience reaction notwithstanding, it was still fun to listen to all the same.  When it was over, the conductor lowered his baton and turned toward us, and I lowered my head to my Playbill.  I clearly saw “V. Double Trouble”, and looked back to him.  His body language and the insistent clapping around me indicated that the suite was officially over.  I decided to use the 3 or 4 seconds before the next piece to view my Playbill o­ne more time, in case I misread or had developed a reading issue.  I then wondered why Williams would end the suite with this section of the score, and not something more emotional or thematically driven.

Main Title from Star Wars was met with applause during the opening notes.  It occurred to me that several people might have purchases their marginally priced tickets to hear this, and o­nly this, theme.  The Philadelphia Orchestra played this with such gusto and passion, it was certainly the loudest of the works played.  The two kids popped up like prairie dogs having previously cowered under their father’s arms during the Knight Bus music, and now seemed completely in awe (visions of Skywalker not doubt danced in their heads).  It was like the whole evening was just a nice stroll around the block in preparation for this o­ne moment.  I can’t begin to tell you all how wonderful the feeling was, and how much of a driving force is still behind this theme even after 28 years.

And then everything was over, and I was forced to relinquish the additional yearning I had for an encore of maybe a dozen more Williams’ pieces.  It really made me wish they stuck with the original plan, which was to play a concert composed (pun excusable) entirely of John Williams’ music.  I am now o­n watch for any more of these types of concerts, when Music Directors actually give film composers the light of day, and the Orchestras play the music with equal and unwavering enthusiasm.  It certainly made the kids happy.

— Tim Friel