The first four notes of the Star Wars main title blast to life in the beautiful Davies Symphony Hall, and members of the audience cheer loudly, whistle, applaud, and some even rise to their feet. Only John Williams, the movie score composer who’s been writing music to accompany the silver screen since the late 1950’s, and who’s responsible for countless universally recognized themes, can induce such a response at a “classical concert.” Such was the general atmosphere at the San Francisco Symphony’s Monday night event, Williams and Spielberg: Maestros of the Movies, a night dedicated to the impact of the award-winning composer (5 Academy Awards, 48 Oscar Nominations, 21 Grammy Awards…etc. etc.).
The evening began with a brief introduction from the San Francisco Symphony music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, who was as excited to hear the night’s program as the sold out audience. When the 81 year-old Williams shuffled to the stage, the house rose to their feet in appreciation. Without hesitation, Williams conducted the symphony in a joyous rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” as a perfectly synced montage of memorable moments of classic cinema played on the suspended screen above the symphony players. The bombastic majesty and adventurous spirit of so many Williams scores was exemplified in the second piece, the suite from Far and Away. Still playful at heart and spry with his wit and gestures, Williams introduced the audience to the next three pieces, all from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The opening notes played on the celeste of “Hedwig’s Theme” immediately transported the audience to a magical world, just as they had when the film first opened in 2001. Then, the main title from Star Wars shook the roof off the house, and the energy in the air was palpable for what was to come.
Williams surprised everyone by opening the second half of the program with the theme from Jaws. The performance had an element of tongue-in-cheek to it, because we all knew who was about to enter the door down stage right. Steven Spielberg strolled to center stage and stood next to Williams’ side, letting the audience take a moment to observe the humble duo who have shaped the face of cinema over forty years and twenty-six titles. Between the two of them, the lifetime gross stats of their collaborative efforts are insurmountable. That being said, the evening was about the importance of score in film and the considerable impact that one man’s compositions have made.
Spielberg spoke eloquently about the marriage of music and movies, then after excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind with accompanying clips of the sci-fi classic, he provided a real unique treat — the circus train sequence from the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade played on the screen, but with only dialogue and some sound effects, no music. It was remarkable to see the sequence play out without the accompanying score to provide suspense, excitement, and humor. The sequence was then played again, this time with Williams conducting the orchestra in sync with the video. Spielberg pointed out when it ended, ‘So you see now that I really wouldn’t be where I am without this man.’ To an extent, we would have to agree. But this statement was never more relevant than when Williams conducted the symphony in a performance of the theme from Schindler’s List. The principal violinist, Alexander Barantschik, did an incredible job at performing the emotional core of the theme, originally performed on the soundtrack by Itzhak Perlman. The crowd gave Barantschik a standing ovation, and Spielberg thanked him countless times.
Williams’ scores of Spielberg’s films have provided such a memorable punch, it’s impossible to separate the two. Their marriage of mediums has been immortalized on screen. During the pieces, Spielberg would sit in a chair on the stage and enjoy the score with the audience, seemingly humming to the music and tapping his feet. Forty years of collaboration and the joy of each other’s efforts are still as fresh as the day they worked together on Jaws. Williams may not be the greatest conductor in the world, but it’s easy to see that his passion is still there as he thrusts his arms above his aging body. He drives home each piece’s final cut-off by throwing his right arm across his chest, fist clenched, and he rocks it a bit, like the beat of a heart, as the music reverberates away.
Join the San Francisco Symphony for a new film series featuring four nights of memorable movie scores accompanied with film on the big over-hanging screen, including Hitchcock titles, Charlie Chaplin films, and more. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.sfsymphony.org/Buy-Tickets/Festivals/film