Chicago, August 1, 2008

Ravinia Festival Pavillion, Chicago, IL
August 1, 2008
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel

Kunzel 30th Anniversary Celebration – John Williams Tribute

Concert Review by John, Mary Jo, and Nicky Tenuto

On Friday, August 1st, we attended the Ravinia Festival’s John Williams Tribute concert conducted by Maestro Erich Kunzel and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Chorale.

The tribute concert was an incredible experience, and although difficult to imagine, as entertaining and engaging an experience as when we attended performances conducted by John Williams.  Watching John Williams conduct is like watching Michelangelo paint.  Yet, the energetic 73 year old Kunzel was just as fun, with his trademark bombastic flourishes and audience pleasing arrangements.

The Setting

The Ravinia Festival is an outdoor theater with excellent acoustics.  The audience often picnics on the grounds while listening to the concert, although we sat in the outdoor pavilion.  As Star Wars music was represented on the program, it was no surprise to that fans from the 501st and Rebel Legion costume clubs were there.  As an extra treat, these volunteers posed for pictures and gave away Star Wars tattoos and photo key chains of the fans with the various characters.


Besides the music, there were other John Williams themed experiences at Ravinia.  Before the concert was a lecture about film music and John Williams.  While on stage, Erich Kunzel spoke about Williams’ biography and musical history.  Kunzel revealed his appreciation of Williams, especially on how Williams utilizes the full power of the orchestra and his contributions to utilizing the leif motif in modern cinema.  The program guide included an article about the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams, and a fantastic article about how expatriate composers such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner had an influence on Williams.  Ironically, during intermission, there was a man in the audience who was saying how much he thinks all of John Williams music sounds the same (this after hearing the varied themes from Superman and Schindler’s List moments before).  We wondered what he was doing at a John Williams tribute concert if he didn’t like his music.  Other than this strange comment, there was much talk among the audience about how much they enjoy Williams music.

The Concert

The concert began with Erich Kunzel’s arrival, dressed all in white.  He is a role model of how to age, as the 73 year old had great enthusiasm during the entire performance.  He never slowed down, and he was perhaps most enthuastic when conducting both the orchestra and the Chorale, effortlessly changing from musicians to singers.  The incredibly bombastic version of Williams’ Olympic Fanfare started the program, appropriate because Kunzel is going to be performing at the Olympics for American dignitaries next week.  He then spoke about John Williams, transitioning to the theme from Jaws.  The two famous alien films of Spielberg were then represented by the “Bicycle Chase” from E.T. and the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Kunzel’s exposition before each song helped set the scene for the music, and he discussed how the five notes of CE3K took Williams and Spielberg a great deal of effort to perfect.  The grand themes of Jurassic Park were played.  The orchestra was really earning their pay this show because of the array of notes played and the Jurassic Park themes were a good example of this.  The showman Kunzel was evident as sound effects from the film were used to set the mood before the theme.  With the great sound system at Ravinia, it felt as if the TRex was in the audience.

“Harry’s Wondrous World” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone contrasted nicely with the more dramatic music of Jurassic Park.  While not a fan of the films, we enjoyed the melodies of the Harry Potter theme.  The theme from Superman was next, with Kuzel’s militaristic best.  Schindler’s Listwas played, its haunting violin solo contrasted with the fun music of Superman and Indiana Jones, which was a great way to show the diversity of Williams’ talents.  The best was the Indiana Jones march whose finale was the most amazing we have ever heard, even from Williams concerts.  The arrangement by Kunzel allowed the orchestra’s full power to be heard, and it was obvious the musicians enjoyed playing this song.

Intermission was followed by an all Star Wars program.  Kunzel returned to the stage escorted by two stormtroopers to much applause.  He then described how he was going to play the music in chronological order and it was great because he offered music from each of the six films.  From The Phantom Menace, there was “Flag Parade” which was arranged to express Kunzel’s love of drums and marches, “Anakin’s Theme,” which was lovely music, and the incredible “Duel of the Fates.”  Kunzel was sure to include the 60 person Chicago Chorale for the “Duel of the Fates” which is a necessity for appreciating the song’s emotion.  Episode II was next.  It was represented by the “Across the Stars” love song.  Again the Chorale was utilized for the “Battle of the Heroes” and it was goosebump inducing for certain.  The arrangement was a perfect copy of the Revenge of the Sith soundtrack.  Continuing the theme of alternating action music with “softer” tunes, the fourth Star Wars episode featured “Princess Leia’s Theme.”  Wagnerian at its best, “The Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back was a favorite.  Our son Nicky who is six years old was conducting along at this time.  “Yoda’s Theme” and “Parade of the Ewoks” were the next two presentations, the latter from Return of the Jedi.  This was the only disappointing presentation of the evening, mostly because “Parade of the Ewoks” ended at an odd note, a strange arrangement which felt like someone had unplugged the sound system.  The audience was uncertain if they should applaud here because of the arrangement.  The last song on the program was the Main Theme from Star Wars.  The 501st and Rebel Legion costumers marched to the stage during the performance much to the audience’s enjoyment.

The encore was the very surprising, and very fun, “Cantina Song” from Star Wars.  The entire audience was clapping and having fun, and Kunzel eventually brought the entire orchestra into the song which was amazing.

For fans of John Williams, there is nothing like seeing the Maestro perform.  Yet, the next best thing is Kunzel who knows how to arrange a Williams song.  Ironically, when Williams performs, he often includes the film music of other composers.  However, the Kunzel concert is something that Williams concerts often are not: it was ALL Williams music.  Kunzel has appeared at Ravinia 127 times during the previous 30 years.  We are hopeful he will return with more John Williams music next year.