Album review: Band of perfection – John Williams conducts ‘The President’s Own’

Over the years we’ve had the luxury to hear John Williams’s music performed in concert and on disc by many of the world class orchestras from the London Symphony Orchestra to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

A year-or-so ago, in January 2020, Williams guest-conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the very first time, with an extensive programme recorded on audio and video by Deutsche Grammophon last August, to wide critical acclaim

The year 2021 comes with another milestone album of live recordings, featuring Williams conducting the United States Marine Band. Also known as ’The President’s Own’, the band, established in 1798, is the oldest professional ensemble in the US, and, without question, one of the finest on the planet.

Available as free download, the new digital album comes from two concerts recorded at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on 12 July 2003 and 20 July 2008, respectively. In addition, Williams’s For ’The President’s Own’ (2013), written for the band’s 215th anniversary and recorded on 10 July 2013 at the John Philip Sousa Band Hall under the composer’s baton is included as a bonus track.

Clocking at 2 hours and 47 minutes, the album is a generous affair. With two complete concert playlists, featuring a total of twenty five pieces by Williams plus the National Anthem, this is a substantial anthology of the Maestro’s music, in extraordinary arrangements and top-class performances.

The wonderful band adaptations of Williams’s symphonic originals are transcribed by Paul Lavender, Jay Bocook, Stephen Bulla and John Moss. The concert version of Nimbus 2000 from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) is given in Williams’s own adaptation for winds and brass, originally conceived for the extensive Children’s Suite by the composer.

The lavish track-list provides the listener with a brilliant selection of Williams’s favourites, alongside some less-frequently performed items.

The 2003 concert opens with an invigorating performance of Sound the Bells! (1993). A formidable overture-fanfare inspired by Japanese temple bells and scored for brass and percussion, Sound the Bells! Was first performed on Boston Pops Orchestra Japanese tour.

The opening brass build-up, accompanied by the glimmering hue of the bells, one is impressed by the US Marine Band’s marvellous contribution. With the composer on the podium, the ensemble delivers a tremendous opening for the album.

A fine take on The Cowboys Overture (1972/1980) ensues, followed by the most wonderful band adaptation of the Theme from JFK (1991) with its soaring trumpet solo setting the ensemble alight with sonic colour. The score works beautifully in its band guise, resulting in a memorable performance.

The spectacular little suite Excerpts from Far and Away (1992) is a delightful extension to the often-played singular concert cue Donnybrook Fair. Incorporating the key themes of the original film score, the suite is a joyful affair, with its Irish-flavored textures superbly performed by ’The President’s Own’.

Perhaps the most uplifting Williams score, Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984) is clad in glorious guise, with its uplifting silver trumpet heralds and solemn tutti passages. Its sonic virtues are shared by the marvellous outings of Main Title from Star Wars (1977), the Raiders March (1981) and the Adventures on Earth from E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

Yet, the highlight of the 2003 concert is probably the three-movement Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (2002), a concert hall adaptation from the score to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can. It’s sixties progressive jazz allusions, fabulously performed by saxophonist Gregory Ridlington, vibraphonist Glenn Paulson and bassist Glenn Dewey, with the whole ensemble, under Williams’s baton.

A witty combination of virtuosity, suspense and comedy, with introspective undercurrents, Williams’s jazz backgrounds are manifested in Escapades in fascinating ways. Well reworked for the band, the orchestral fabric provides the three soloist a thrilling framework to shine.

Without discredit to the four skillful arragers and their top-class work, it is fair to say that most of Williams’s best-known symphonic film scores lend them to a band setting quite naturally. However, the sublimely touching Theme from Schindler’s List (1993) for solo violin and orchestra is a quite different case.

In this respect, John Moss’s band adaptation of the orchestral part deserves a special credit. His reworking of Williams’s original is both innovative and idiomatic. Together with violinist Peter Wilson’s solo, the band delivers a nuanced performance, one firmly etched in memory upon first hearing.

Given as an encore, Nimbus 2000 is another 2003 highlight. A brilliantly orchestrated trickster-of-a-cue, the score provides the band a perfect vehicle to demonstrate their skill and craft. An atmospheric performance of magic and mischief, hearing Nimbus 2000 with the US Marine Band is pure delight.

The first concert closes with The Mission Theme from NBC News (1984). An everyday item for American TV audiences given a full workout, Williams’s catchy music brings the evening to its end in an upbeat manner. 

Five years later, the Maestro returned to conduct ’The President’s Own’ in another gala concert, featuring the National Anthem, followed by an all-Williams programme. 

As an opener, The Star-Spangled Banner is given in Williams’s own 2007 adaptation, the most interesting one since Igor Stravinsky’s 1941 version, as the manifested by the ingenious middle section. 

Once again, we get astonishing performances of some of those iconic selections from Jaws (1975), Star Wars, Superman (1978) and the Indiana Jones and Harry Potter films  from Williams and the Marine Band. These famous takes are joined by the splendid, swashbuckling The Adventures of Mutt from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Chrystal Skull (2008), one of the most cheerful items of the second concert.

Alongside the best-loved standards, Williams and the band present a delightful selection from outside the action-adventure scores, including the picturesque twenty-minute suite from The Reivers (1969), in an evocative performance narrated by the Honorable Alan Simpson, as well as lovely adaptation of the Theme from Sugarland Express (1973) for solo flute and band, featuring the extraordinary Gail Gillespie as soloist.

Another ambitious band arrangement, Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is given an enthusiastic outing. However, Williams’s original, quasi-modernist textures for full orchestra and chorus do not lend them easily for a band setting, due to the essential role of the extended tone-colours embedded in the score. Even so, its inclusion aptly adds to the variety of the playlist, to an inspiring effect. 

Described by Williams as ”a group of American airs and tunes of my own invention”, the Liberty Bell Fanfare (1986) is an uplifting tour-de-force celebrating the centennial of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. The riveting performance is set back-to-back with Williams’s tongue-in-cheek March from 1941, a 1979 Steven Spielberg martial comedy.

Following the brilliant 2008 performance, the march has become a trademark item for Williams and the band, who have since performed it on several memorable occasions. As this recording demonstrates, the band simply owns the piece, to an exhilarating effect. 

If I was to pick just one highlight from the second concert, I would go for The Tale of Viktor Navorski from The Terminal (2004). It’s quasi-East-European dance idioms, alluringly performed by clarinetist Jihoon Chang and the band, yield to spellbinding musical vistas. 

Performed as a compelling encore, the 2008 concert round off with The Imperial March (1980), one of Williams’s best-known anthems. The stormy march for Darth Vader never fails to make an impact, and hearing it in a band guise is great fun. 

The final track on the album, the premiere recording of For ’The President’s Own’ is an ideal vehicle for the virtuoso ensemble to overwhelm its listeners. A loving salute to the band, the score is a gem. As far as the performance is concerned, Williams and the Marine Band give the score a tremendous workout. 

Having these concerts available as a free MP3 download, with detailed booklet, is generosity indeed. A musical gift not to be missed!      

The United States Marine Band

John Williams, conductor

Gregory Ridlington, saxophone 

Glenn Paulson, vibraphone 

Glenn Dewey, double bass

Peter Wilson, violin

Gail Gillespie, flute

Jihoon Chang, clarinet

Honorable Alan Simpson, narrator 

Recorded at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on 12 July 2003 and 20 July 2008 (For ’The President’s Own’ recorded at the John Philip Sousa Band Hall on10 July 2013)

’The President’s Own’ United States Marine Band (2021), MP3 download

© Jari Kallio


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