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The John Williams Concert Work Listening and Discussion Thread


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I was going to make a thread that would serve as an ultimate guide to all of JWs concert works where, in one big post, I would give piece details, recording details and the like.  I have not been

Violin Concerto No. 1 (1974-1976) The Violin Concerto No.1  represents a tangible shift in Williams's concert output.  While still being modern in style and approach, it is a much more conve

Fanfare for a Festive Occasion (1980) This is an important work as it is the first concert overture written by Williams, a form that he would be called upon to revisit often in the following in h

I'm sure there's a similar thread in the past? At the very least, there is a thread for each of Williams' concert works. You can possibly link to those if you intend to do a walkthrough of the 60+ titles.

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1 minute ago, Thor said:

I'm sure there's a similar thread in the past? At the very least, there is a thread for each of Williams' concert works. You can possibly link to those if you intend to do a walkthrough of the 60+ titles.

I don't think we ever had a thread with a concept like, I hope I'm not wrong.  

The idea for this thread is for information and discussion to be in one place, as some members have expressed their interest in approaching JWs concert work in a format like that.  

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Yeah, it's a good idea. I own all of Williams' concert works, except a handful that are not available in any format whatsoever ("A Toast!", "Symphony No. 1", that kind of stuff). So I'll probably refer to a previous thread about it if you don't.

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Prelude and Fugue

Alright, let us begin with what is to my knowledge the first released John Williams concert work.

 

The Prelude and Fugue dates back from 1965, during an era where "John" Williams was trying to cultivate a career as a serious classical composer while "Johnny" paid the bills writing film scores. 

This early work seeks to blend contemporary classical stylings with jazz hallmarks, with both being filtered through John's emerging compositional voice, though the overall effect does feel indebted to Bernstein.  Although relatively avant-garde, it does exemplify some of his concern with accessibility of form and blending of various higher and lower musical influences into a new sort of synthesis.  In that regard, I'd classify it as an early postmodern work.  There are moments throughout where some of his future trademarks seem to be in gestation. 

It is a strong work that has a confidence in direction and thematic build-up even in the freer flowing sections.

 

Two recordings exist.  The first is the original from 1965, with Stan Keaton conducting the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra.  This is the recording that, to my ears, has the most energy and propulsion.

Spoiler

 

  

The second recording, from 2005, features "The President's Own" United States Marine Band giving a more measured and restrained take on the piece.

Spoiler

 

 

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Essay for Strings (1965)

 

Sorry for the delay in posting.  I do hope to be more frequent than this going forward.

So, the Essay for Strings, another 1965 work.  I find this piece to be very deliberate, a conscious attempt by JW at writing a fully realized piece for the concert hall.  Again, he combines modernist stylings with a slightly more straightforward approach, this time in terms of dramatic structure.  A lot of the piece, in terms of material and direction, does call to mind some of Williams's future approach to action writing in film scores.    He builds the work around a dramatic thematic motif shape, fully utilizing the string orchestra to provide different statements and stormy moods, with the occasional clever lighter passage here and there.  

The piece received a few performances back in the 60s, with Previn and Mehta on the podium, with Williams occasionally conducting it himself since the 80s.  

The premier was in Houston, with Previn.  Williams wrote program notes for the event:

Quote

The work, for string orchestra, is in one movement and its character is essentially dramatic. After a quiet introduction, the main "rowlike" theme appears. This is followed quickly by just a suggestion of the driving 16th-note "motor" figure which eventually, after other development, moves the work into its final section. It is here that the main theme joins the "motor" figure and they combine to propel the piece to its conclusion.

Two recordings of the work exist.

The first came all the way in 2002, with Ron Feldman leading the London Symphony.

This recording is on YouTube.

Spoiler

 

A second recording, featuring the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia was released in 2013, and is available for purchase here: https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8029337--american-masters

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I consider the Prelude and the Essay sort of "exercise" pieces for Williams where he writes for a certain ensemble - no strings in Prelude (and hence a popular piece to perform for military bands and the like) and strings-only in Essay. Furthermore, all of his early concert works are imbued with certain jazz harmonies and structures -- the meeting place between contemporary classical and jazz that was so popular at the time.

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In my younger days, I would have characterized the Star Wars main title (yes, I know that thread this is) along the lines of brass driven piece.  For whatever reason, once I heard the Essay (which I really like), I began hearing many of those same string techniques and chord choices in the SW piece.  I now think the strings drive it more than the brass.

 

As for the Essay--I love the final tonal measures after 10 minutes of less tonal.  It has an almost humorous feel in closing out the piece.  

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I'm going to be making two posts today.  

First, a piece that notoriously has not been recorded and released.

Symphony No. 1 (1966)

There has been a good deal of discussion about this piece on the board, despite most if not all of us having never heard it.

@TownerFan has written delved deep into the available information about the piece's writing, concept, and performance and I link to his excellent article, which also covers his other concert works of the period, here: https://thelegacyofjohnwilliams.com/2019/10/08/john-williams-early-concert-works/

 

All indications are that the symphony is an important formative work, particularly with regards to Williams coalescing in his mind a sort of artistic vision of the importance of myth for life and art, something which I think would greatly inform his future transcendent approach to film scoring. 

 

 

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We're all waiting for a recording of that one. The hints we've received have been tantalizing. People who have read the score sheets have described it as somewhat 'jazzy', which would fit nicely with several of his other concert works at the time. There's also a reference to a flute part in the "style of Eric Dolphy". Stuff like that which we touched upon in the work's dedicated thread here on JWFAN.

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Flute Concerto (1969)

 

The Flute Concerto is one of Williams's most striking concert pieces.  Perhaps John's most avant-garde concert work, and the one that seems to impress the contemporary classical crowd the most, it is an exercise in moods and textures that draws on modernist and Japanese influences.  Despite its approach, it is very rewarding to listen to, and there are moments of orchestration and direction that are unmistakably JW. 

Williams seems to view the piece as an early work, and as such it does not see the light of day all that often, which is probably a pity as it strikes me as a quite mature work in intention and execution.

The only recording is from 1981 and features Leonard Slatkin conducting Peter Lloyd and the London Symphony.

Would definitely like to see this one get a higher profile.

Spoiler

 

 

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Both the sinfonietta and the flute concerto are among Williams' more challenging pieces, but I say the flute concerto is the one that is the most "out there". It's a very organic piece in terms of how Lloyd plays the flute. Not only through lots of breath (shakuhachi-style), but in terms of the "exclamation marks" (in lack of a better word) that ebb and flow throughout. As if the flute is talking.

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Williams refamiliarized himself with the flute concerto in 2014. Pianist Daniel Wachs wrote about spending the day at Williams' home....


https://blogs.chapman.edu/copa/2014/03/25/were-off-to-see-the-wizard-a-meeting-with-composer-john-williams/

 

Quote

What he asked made me fall out of my chair. David inquired if I would accompany him to the legendary (and still very much living) composer John Williams’ own home to work on Mr. Williams’ 1968 Concerto for Flute ....

 

I'd love to see that piano reduction. It must look really weird!

 

The flute concerto was the first concert piece of Williams I ever heard. I got the VSD CD that coupled it with his (first) violin concerto. I was young and naive. I remember thinking "the flute is a nice sweet instrument, I bet this is going to be beautiful" I think at that point I had really only heard Williams own writing for flutes in his film scores and some of Mozart's flute writing. I was honestly expecting to hear the sweetest of love themes...  Well, the first listen came as quite a shock! But now that my musical horizons have broardened somewhat, and now that I'm more familair with the piece, and I do enjoy listening to it every now and then -> maybe once or twice a year.

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14 hours ago, SteveMc said:

A Nostalgic Jazz Odyssey (1971)

Another piece written for the Eastman Wind Ensemble, this is a tone poem of sorts exploring jazz sonorities in a contemporary classical context, in a bit more of an accessible way than the Sinfonietta.  

 

While the sinfonietta was performed and recorded with the Eastman Ensemble for DG, this was the only piece specifically commissioned by Hunsberger and the ensemble. Untill the Marine band recording, only available in a shoddy-sounding bootleg format. Again, a rather experimental affair, but with some more accessible contemporary/jazz sensibilities, at least compared to the wild flute concerto. I think this is actually my favourite, pre-violin concerto JW concert piece. I listened to a CD-R of the ol' bootleg quite a bit while tending the desk of a museum for a summer job back in the late 90s.

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I loved reading your synopses and interpretations of these pieces  @SteveMc. We have so much content on this forum that delves incisively into JW’s film music, but much less for his concert work—and certainly not in a single thread like this. But his concert work deserves it just as much. Thank you for this. 
 

Do you have plans to survey the next decade (or five) of his output? (I hope you do!)

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17 hours ago, Miguel Andrade said:

@Thor Not recorded by the Marine Band but rather the US Coast Guard Band. The bootleg recording, was by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Hunsberger.

 

Yes, the Coast Guard band, sorry.

 

And yes, the ol' boot was Hunsberger and EWE. However, did we ever find out what the source of this boot was? It was never released on album, like the sinfonietta. Presumably just some private recording (or possibly live performance) used for internal purposes.

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6 hours ago, TownerFan said:

 

I always thought that this concerto shares a common ground with Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, another piece composed in memory of a dearly departed. Musicologist Tom Schneller explored those analogies in a beautiful essay contained in Emilio Audissino-curated volume John Williams: Music for Film, Television and the Concert Stage

 

There seem to me, someone musically untrained, that there are obvious aesthetically connections between Berg's and Williams' Concertos for Violin.

And Williams have always referred as main influences many composers from the early to mid 20th Century, which would include Alban Berg.

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16 hours ago, Miguel Andrade said:

 

There seem to me, someone musically untrained, that there are obvious aesthetically connections between Berg's and Williams' Concertos for Violin.

And Williams have always referred as main influences many composers from the early to mid 20th Century, which would include Alban Berg.

 

The interesting thing is that both pieces aren't funereal in character, but express wistfulness and contemplation. They're both a journey from darkness to light.

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On 6/29/2021 at 10:52 PM, SteveMc said:

Violin Concerto No. 1 (1974-1976)

 

 

Perhaps Williams' most famous and most-performed/recorded concert piece still. It's a beautiful little thing -- as Williams himself says, a cross between modernist and romantic sensibilities (or something to that effect). I have two versions - the Peskanov and the Shaham.

 

Weird to see it labelled as "No. 1" now that a second is forthcoming.

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On 7/1/2021 at 11:55 PM, Thor said:

Yeah, that’s a well-recorded piece too. Never done a tally.

 

There are at least, some six recordings of the Tuba Concerto, opposed to just three of the Violin Concerto and two of the Cello Concerto and Trumpet Concerto (if memory serves, the Detroit Symphony recording of the Trumpet remains unreleased).

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On 6/17/2021 at 10:13 PM, SteveMc said:

This is perhaps my least favorite of the early JW concert efforts.  Rather technical and heavy for my tastes, bereft of levity, a bit challenging to get into.

Finally got around to catching up a bit on these - Difficult and challenging indeed, but I still didn't feel any need to skip around or close it prematurely.

On 6/21/2021 at 11:04 PM, SteveMc said:

Flute Concerto (1969)

This one's highly interesting with its varied textures! That alone should make it accessible enough to many who know and love certain scores of his.

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17 hours ago, Matt S. said:

Actually, there are three recordings of the Trumpet Concerto... by trumpeters Arturo Sandoval, Juoko Harjanne, and Thomas Hooten.

 

Yes, you're right. Can't believe I forgot about Harjanne's. There is also a recording of that one transcribed for winds orchestra

https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/classic/detail/-/art/american-dreams/hnum/10428688

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Jubilee 350 Fanfare

So, I have to apologize for a mistake in my previous post.  I missed the fact that the Fanfare for a Festive Occasion was the second of Williams's concert overtures.  This was the first, by a couple of months.  Written to celebrate Boston's 350th anniversary and premiered by the Boston Pops outside City Hall, Williams later recorded it as part of his American Journey disc.

Again, we have Williams feeling out a form he would perfect later in the decade.  

Bit more info on the piece here: https://www.johnwilliams.org/compositions/concert/jubilee-350-fanfare

 

 

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I definitely prefer Jubilee out of these two - Festive brings to mind his Olympic pieces and the comparisons there are not favourable. Maybe it's just the performance/recording, though.

 

The violin concerto is fantastic.

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I dig most of JW's shorter fanfares and themes. Love both "Festive" and "Jubilee". But my favourite comes a bit later in your walkthrough.

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Pops On The March (1981)

This concert overture was originally commissioned by longtime Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler in 1978, but was only completed and premiered in 1981, after Fiedler's death and during the early part of Williams's tenure as his successor.  

Firmly written in the "heroic" compositional style that marks the Raiders of the Lost Ark score, this is a rousing piece with plenty of melodic, orchestral and harmonic interest to serve well as a concert showpiece.  

A detailed rundown of the piece is featured here: https://johnwilliams.org/compositions/concert/pops-on-the-march

 

Here is the piece as performed by The Boston Pops some ten years after it was first premiered.  

 

 

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Pops on the March is a bit odd.  It is nice, but it just doesn't have the flow of his other marches.  Apropos to this thread, it feels like a mashup of his pure concert hall style and his occasion pieces.  It is like my brother.  I am glad it exists, but I do not plan to visit often.  

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1 minute ago, Tom said:

Apropos to this thread, it feels like a mashup of his pure concert hall style and his occasion pieces.

I'm glad I'm not alone in picking up on that, this piece having a bit more of the kind of expressive academic approach, if the term can be applied, that he often takes in his concert works.  For my part, I rather like it.  Gives it a bit of a daring quality, and I like how it kind of serves as an extended take in the style of some of his more complex film music passages, at least to my ears.

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America, The Dream Goes On (1982)

Part of me had doubts about including this piece in here, since it seems to exist more as a pop-light music fusion occasion piece than as a proper classical concert work.  

 

At any rate, it is a blissfully patriotic piece, a product of the burgeoning Reagan era optimism and neo- Americana (which Williams would be a more formal part of later).  The lyrics, by Alan and Merilyn Bergman are about as far from nuance and cleverness as you can get.  There are some interesting little moments in the orchestration, but overall I am not a big fan of this piece.

 

Here's the original recording, featuring the recently late James Ingram as soloist.  Some live performances with other soloists like John Denver and Dionne Warwick are up on YT.   

Spoiler

 

Here is a version with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Certainly benefits from the more formal approach. 

Spoiler

 

 

 

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I’m in the process of listening to my collection by year. I ‘suffered’ through Thomas & The King last week and yesterday was Can You Read My Mind. I like the music under the lyrics but once you add the singing...

 

I put America, the Dream Goes On in that category too. I like the music but could do without the vocals (I do still like Shirley MacLaine in John Goldfarb!)

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