As John Williams, the grand old man of Hollywood, walked onstage at the venerable Vienna Musikverein to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker on Saturday afternoon, there was history in the making.
The concert, and its reprise on Sunday, was an eagerly awaited affair for countless film music fans throughout Europe. The Maestro’s first concert appearances on this side of the Atlantic ever since the mid-1990s, both events were sold out within a couple of minutes.
In the fall of 2018, Williams was forced to cancel his appearances to conduct both the London Symphony Orchestra and the Wiener Philharmoniker, due illness. Now, however, Williams was there, in perfect health and good-spirited, with a splendid programme, featuring some of his best-loved classics, alongside intriguing rarities.
As a special guest, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter shared the stage with the Maestro and the orchestra, performing several pieces arranged especially for her by Williams, for an album collaboration, released last year by Deutsche Grammophon.
As soon as Williams was taking his first steps towards the podium, the audience greeted him with joyous cheers and a spontaneous standing ovation, one of many in the course of the outstanding evening.
For Williams himself, a chance to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker in its glorious Musikverein home, has been a lifelong dream. Throughout the evening, one could sense each and every person in the hall, either onstage making music or in the hall listening, being deeply moved by the occasion.
On a purely musical level, the chance to hear Williams’ music, the embodiment of Hollywood tradition at the highest level, brought back to its Central European roots with the Viennese, was something profoundly inspiring. For Williams’ symphonic music has its roots in the Hollywood Golden Era tradition, originally shaped by European emigrée composers, including Viennese talents Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
As an opening piece, Flight to Neverland from the 1991 Steven Spelberg film Hook was heard. The rousing concert adaptation is an amalgam of a prologue, originally written to underscore the film’s trailer, alongside the initial music for the flight scene. One of Williams’ finest concert adaptations, Flight to Neverland was given an astounding performance, one clad in gorgeous Viennese sound.
As a stark contrast, music for another Spielberg film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) ensued. Unlike the sweeping fairy-tale atmosphere of Hook, the score for Close Encounters features various experimental techniques, originating in postwar modernism and minimalism. However, there is a more lyrical side found in the score, with its marvellous quotation of When You Wish upon a Star.
For the ten minute concert piece, Williams reworked his material into an orchestral fantasia. Fusing together the key motives from the original score, the concert piece, titled simply as Excerpts, never fails to allure the listener into its realm of mystery. With the composer at the helm of the Wiener Philharmoniker, the music was brought to life with irresistable magic.
Observing Williams’ conducting technique at close distance is a pleasure in itself. Rooted in his lifetime experience of working in a recording studio, under pressing schedule, Williams has developed a podium style devoid of all unnecessary fuss and mannerism. With his clear-cut technique, Williams provides his musicians with all the info and support needed for a top-class performance.
For a soloist, Williams is a reliable partner, as was demonstrated by the sequence of four tailor-made arrangements for violin and orchestra performed with Mutter. In its new guise, the much-played Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) comes out afresh, with the solo violin admirably enhancing the magical appeal inherent in the music.
As a romantic interlude, Theme from Sabrina (1995) was heard. As the 1990s film itself is a remake of the 1954 classic, Williams’ score harks back to vintage Hollywood, resulting in ravishing sonorities.
With its delightful Irish flavor, Donnybrook Fair, a scherzo-like cue from Far and Away (1992), sits well with the violin, resulting in upbeat dance for the soloist and the orchestra.
Closing the cycle, the mischievous Devil’s Dance from Witches of Eastwick (1987) was heard. Conceived as a trickster danse macabre, the piece is a stunning concert item, providing the orchestra and the soloist with rhythmic and textural challenges.
Mutter’s performances of these pieces were pure delight. Perfectly in accord with their soloist, Williams and the orchestra provided her with ideal support. Seemingly enjoying their collaboration, Mutter and Williams were a team made in heaven.
In a concert setting, film music is often repserented with cues underscoring the film titles. In order to do full justice to the craft of film composing, it is fundamental to perform actual film cues in their original, unedited guise. In this way, the listener is able to fully cherish all those carefully timed transitions in mood, texture and instrumentation.
In this respect, Adventures of Earth, a ten-minute unedited presentation of the music written for the final reel of E.T. (1982) is a most welcome addition to any film music programme. As Williams put it in his spoken introduction, a chance to hear the music without the distraction of the film, is something special.
The cue depicts the film’s final chase leading to E.T.’s departure, concluding with the spaceship lifting off. Opening with fast music for strings, the cue builds up to a tumult for full orchestra before cooling down for those touching moments of farewell. The music closes with a ravishing orchestral climax to accompany E.T.’s journey home.
At Musikverein, Adventures on Earth provided perfect closing for the first half of the programme. Clad in tremendous Viennese garb, Williams’ music vibrated with uplifting orchestral energy, to a stunning effect.
The second half opened with another masterpiece, Williams’ concert arrangement from Jurassic Park (1993). Concieved as a classical overture, with slow introduction, the music begins with a haunting horn solo, a summoning call, echoed by distant answer. The strings join, with their solemn melody, leading to a workout for full orchestra.
With glorious trumpet call, the music picks up speed, as the brass section is unleashed in its resounding majesty. A case in point of Williams’ impeccable craft, the music is wonderfully orchestrated, with each instrumental group shining with splendour.
Perfect vehicle for an outstanding orchestra, Theme from Jurassic Park set the second half into soaring motion, greeted with another standing ovation by the audience.
Dartmoor, 1912, an extended opening cue from the film War Horse (2011), is Williams’ homage to Ralph Vaughan Williams. Featuring solo flute, the music echoes the unique real of the English folksong. An atmospheric introduction for flute sets the music in motion. The orchestra joins, and the music grows into a vivid pastoral tableau. On the closing pages, the solo flute reappears, bringing the cue to its tranquil close.
At Musikverein, Dartmoor, 1912 was played with utmost beauty. Pastoral images of mist-covered fields arose, as the opening section gradually unraveled. Aptly paced, the fast middle section was a feast of orchestral splendour.
One of the most admirable traits of Williams’ craft is his seemingly effortless ability to incorporate classical forms into film cues. In this respect, Out to Sea / Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws (1975) is a case in point. Following a deceptively carefree introduction, a grippping fugue ensues. Splendidly orchestrated, the fugue is a breathtaking journey into darkness. Performed with admirable clarity and riveting intensity, The Shark Cage Fugue was a real thriller.
Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is based on original material from the film, with a new middle section, the concert version first appeared on a 2017 studio album, celebrating the Spielberg / Williams collaboration. A nod to Hollywood romance, Marion’s Theme is an instantly appealing piece, performed with charm and delicacy by the orchestra.
As a conclusion, three selections from the Star Wars saga was heard. The most recent Williams piece of the programme, Rebellion is Reborn from The Last Jedi (2017), offered a fascinating glimpse of the composer’s current style. The concert arrangement brings together key themes from the new trilogy into a life-affirming anthem. Here Williams’ scoring is at its finest, with characteristically exquisite brass writing.
Luke and Leia from The Return of the Jedi (1983) portrays both the Skywalker siblings, and the actors behind the roles, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, in a touching manner.
Probably the most iconic John Williams piece, Main Title from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) is a rousing overture, combining the opening fanfare accompanying the film’s trademark title crawl, and the music written for the end titles.
With the fabulous musicians of the Wiener Philharmoniker, the Star Wars pieces shone out in awesome orchestral garb. Lush textures, enhanced by the sheer depth of the Viennese sound, made the Golden Hall reverberate with splendour.
Following the programme proper, no less than five encores were played. Anne-Sophie Mutter returned the stage to play the solo parts of the first three.
As her first encore, Mutter played a rarity, Nice to Be Around from the 1973 film Cinderella Liberty. A less-known little gem, the piece bears charming intimacy.
The Duel from The Adventures of Tintin (2011) provided Williams a chance to contribute to the Hollywood Swashbuckling tradition. In genuinely Korngoldian manner, the music takes the form of a ballet, with irregular accents coinciding with the on-screen fencing. Rescored for violin and orchestra, The Duel is an excellent virtuoso piece, performed with wit and dexterity by Mutter and the orchestra, with the composer at the helm.
In addition to the whirlwind of a performance, there was some impromptu fencing at play too, as Williams and Mutter jokingly clashed their baton and bow together during the applause.
As a meditative interlude, Remembrances from Schindler’s List (1993) ensued. Written for Itzhak Perlman, who performed on the original soundtrack, Remembrances is a touching contemplation, performed with subtlety by Mutter and the orchestra.
Following her solo pieces, Mutter joined the first violin section for a splendid perfromance of The Raiders March (1981), a must item for any Williams concert. Lauded with wild cheers and a long standing ovation, it was the happiest affair imaginable. Yet, there was one more piece to come.
Finally, after almost three hours, the orchestra and Williams landed on the very last encore. The opening bars of The Imperial March, the musical personification of Darth Vader, first heard in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), were lost in the thunderous roar of the Musikverein audience. After the powerhouse performance, the hall simply went berserk, an unparalleled experience in a concert hall.
A concert like no other, there was a profound sense of community in the air. With performances at the highest level, conducted by the composer, and a devoted audience fully immersed in the music, this was an once-in-a-lifetime celebration of a shared musical love.
John Williams, conductor
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
John Williams: Flight to Neverland from Hook (1991)
John Williams: Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
John Wiiliams: Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001/2019)
John Williams: Theme from Sabrina (1995/2019)
John Williams: Donnybrook Fair from Far and Away (1992/2019)
John Williams: Devil’s Dance from The Witches of Eastwick (1987/2019)
John Williams: Adventures on Earth from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
John Williams: Theme from Jurassic Park (1993)
John Williams: Dartmoor, 1912 from War Horse (2011)
John Williams: Out to Sea / Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws (1975)
John Williams: Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981/2017)
John Williams: The Rebellion is Reborn from The Last Jedi (2017)
John Williams: Luke and Leia from The Return of the Jedi (1983)
John Williams: Main Title from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
John Williams: Nice to Be Around from Cinderella Liberty (1973/2019)
John Williams: The Duel from The Adventures of Tintin (2011/2019)
John Williams: Remembrances from Schindler’s List (1993)
John Williams: Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
John Williams: The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Saturday 18 January 2020, 3.30 pm
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Terry Linke / Deutsche Grammophon