Friday, December 30, 2011

Dear John

John Williams receiving the
2009 National Medal of Arts
Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Children’s Chorus conducted by David Robertson
What: Movie Music of John Williams
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: December 29 and 30, 2011

The St. Louis Symphony is revving up for its annual New Year’s Eve gala with a two-night celebration of the film music of John Williams, conducted with loving abandon by maestro David Robertson. With the Chorus and Children’s Chorus thrown into the mix, it all adds up to a joyful noise — and isn’t that largely what the season is all about?

John Williams, who will turn 80 next month, is probably the best-known and most frequently recorded film music composer of the last 100 years. He’s certainly one of the most honored, with five Oscars, four Golden Globes, twenty-one Grammys, seven BAFTA awards, and, for all I know, a partridge in a pear tree. His most visible work has been for blockbusters like Jurassic Park, the first Harry Potter film, and the Star Wars series, but (as Mr. Robertson pointed out in his entertaining commentary) Mr. Williams’s involvement with the film music business extends all the way back to his days as a jazz keyboardist and film and TV studio pianist. Remember piano riff for Peter Gunn? That’s him.

The audience probably expected an evening of Williams’s Monster Hits, and in this respect the program certainly did not disappoint, with familiar themes from Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Arc, and the Star Wars and Harry Potter movies. There were also selections that probably owe their popularity more to their prevalence on classical music radio than anything else. I’ve never seen Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, or Amistad, for example, but the uplifting “Exculpate Justi”, the solemn “Hymn to the Fallen”, and the moving “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” (adapted from a 1967 poem by Bernard Dadie) are as familiar to me as anything by Beethoven.

Throughout the evening, Mr. Roberson regaled the audience with cheery anecdotes and factual tidbits about John Williams and his music. Some conductors of Mr. Robertson’s stature might turn their noses up at this sort of thing, but he clearly loves it dearly and threw himself into his direction with the same passion he devotes to far more substantial fare. Put that together with the usual fine performances from the symphony musicians and the adult and children’s choruses, and the result was a holiday treat that was hard to resist, lightweight though it might have been.

Mr. Roberston even recorded the entire Friday night audience singing "Happy Birthday" to Mr. Williams for his 80th on February 8th.  How cool is that?

Yes, I had a couple of quibbles. I’d lose my Critic’s Secret Decoder Ring if I didn’t. The sound from our seats in the second row of the dress circle was rather brass heavy, for one thing, even allowing for Williams’s fondness for winds. And at two and one half hours, including two encores, the evening was perhaps just a bit too long, although it was nice to finally hear something I’d never heard before as the first encore — “Call of the Champions”, an elaborate fanfare for chorus and orchestra written for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Still, I’m not complaining. The microtonal opening sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind can only be fully appreciated in a live performance, I think, and it was fun to hear the “Double Trouble” song from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (with lyrics by that Bill Shakespeare dude) performed by the Children’s Chorus.

As Eddie Silva points out in his program notes, the SLSO has had quite a public affair lately with movies and movie music, from live accompaniment for screenings of classic silents like Phantom of the Opera and City Lights to packaged extravaganzas like Bugs Bunny at the Symphony and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Granted, it’s a match born out of financial necessity more than love, as these programs nearly always sell out and are probably quite profitable. But if they attract audiences who have never experienced the heady cocktail of a live orchestral performance then I, for one, am all for it. Now if only first-time concertgoers could get it through their heads that you don’t walk out during the curtain calls we’d all be happy.

Next at Powell Hall: December 31st brings the annual New Year’s Eve blowout, and the regular season resumes on January 13 and 14 with what appears to be a twilight-themed program of music by Richard Strauss (Four Last Songs, with Christine Brewer), George Crumb (A Haunted Landscape), and Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7. Program notes are available here.  David Robertson conducts. For more information you may call 314-534-1700, visit, like the Saint Louis Symphony Facebook page, or follow @slso on Twitter.

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