Show Review: The Music of John Williams—from Star Wars to Harry Potter!

by Chad Liffmann on July 9, 2016

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As you can see from the image above, this wasn’t your average night at the symphony. On Thursday, the San Francisco Symphony honored legendary film composer John Williams with a program full of his iconic, award-winning scores. From fantasy epics like Star Wars and Harry Potter, to memorable dramas like Schindler’s List and Lincoln, John Williams has put a musical stamp on well over 100 films, and is still writing amazing scores to this day, at age 84.

Conductor Edwin Outwater, who is the director of the SF Symphony’s Summer Concerts and musical director of Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (KWS), strolled out to center stage and immediately led the orchestra into a burst of excitement with the Star Wars: A New Hope main title. Outwater was engaging throughout the entire evening, polling the audience for their favorite Williams score (Harry Potter with a fairly decisive victory) and playing along with guest appearances by the local Star Wars costuming fan clubs, the 501st Legion and Rebel Legion: Endor Base. It was definitely entertaining, and the audience soaked up the campiness when the Rebel Legion selected audience members to act out the throne room scene from Return of the Jedi. However, costumed sharks dancing to the theme from Jaws was only momentarily amusing, but soon lost its effect as they danced awkwardly in front of the orchestra for the length of the entire song, all but removing the tension and horror that Williams instilled in the piece.

The audience also got a taste of a few Williams selections not often brought up in conversations, including the “Overture to The Cowboys” and “March from Midway”. These pieces helped paint a picture of a composer who was not limited to the blockbusters he’s most known for. Williams had expanded his cinematic repertoire to various genres, allowing for musical contributions that would fit right alongside the most traditional, Western-influenced, musical works of America’s nineteenth and twentieth century classical composers. Of course, there are also the more well-known themes that will stand the test of time, including the theme from Schindler’s List, which features the emotional violin solo, performed on Thursday by the immensely talented Alina Ming Kobialka. The symphony listened in silence as Kobialka took the room on an emotional journey of remembrance and sorrow, and moments later we were being flown magically through the skies with Williams’ “Flight to Neverland” from Hook. 

It would have been nice to hear from an even larger selection of Williams’ filmography, as there were six pieces from the Star Wars saga. Memorable scores like the ones from Catch Me If You Can, Superman, Far & Away, Home Alone, A:i, Memoirs of a Geisha, or Munich would have been welcome additions. But of course, those make up only a slice of what was left out of an immensely deep catalog of films to choose from. As it was, hearing the eclectic nature of the Star Wars scores over the course of seven films was interesting, even including two pieces, “Rey’s Theme” and “Scherzo for X-Wings” from last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It was a fantastic evening completely devoted to Williams and his music, since there wasn’t a screen above the orchestra playing video clips.  To be frank, it wasn’t needed since Williams’ scores are memorable and transportive enough that just listening to them will conjure up scenes and emotions from the films.

Summer Concerts at the SF Symphony continues this week:
July 14- July 15: Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage: A 50th Anniversary Celebration
July 16- July 17: Ratatouille—Feature Film with Live Orchestra


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