Beyond superlatives – John Williams conducts the Berlin Philharmonic

John Williams conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
© Stephan Rabold

At the age of eighty nine, John Williams’s creative life seems to be as abundant with activities as ever. In addition to embarking upon his next Hollywood engagement, scoring the forthcoming fifth installment in the Indiana Jones series, there are several podium appearances lined up in the composer’s schedule as well, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Over the past months, Williams has picked up his baton again here and there, first to conduct the Tanglewood world premiere of his Second Violin Concerto (2021) for Anne Sophie Mutter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a film music night at the Hollywood Bowl. This week finds the Maestro is back in Europe for the first time since his celebrated concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic in January 2020.

Thursday evening marked the composer’s debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, as he took the podium at the orchestra’s Philharmonie home, conducting the orchestra in the first of three evenings devoted to his best-loved film scores, with some lesser-known gems incorporated in the programme. Alongside the generous selection of his iconic sonic universes devised for the big screen, two concert pieces were included in the Berlin playlist as well, namely the rousing Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984) and the sublime Elegy for Cello and Orchestra (1997/2001) with the orchestra’s 1st Principal Cello Bruno Delepelaire as soloist.

An evening beyond superlatives from the orchestra under Williams, the enraptured Philharmonie audience was treated with a joyride through five decades of the Maestro’s spellbinding oeuvre, given in one powerhouse performance after another.

As a concert opener par excellence, the evening was launched with the sounding fireworks of the famous Olympic Fanfare and Theme, the composer’s electrifying contribution to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. An absolute blast from Williams and the Berliners, the four-minute sequence of glistening brass heralds, embellished with luminous winds and soaring strings, propelled by terrific contributions from the percussion section, was astoundingly served by the inspired outing, auguring the joyful evening.

Following the sheer feast of symphonic athletics, there was an intriguing change of mood, as Williams lead the orchestra into the mysterious realm of his quasi-modernist score for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Conceived in musical idiom perfectly suited for the vibrant translucence of the trademark Berlin Phil sound, the ten-minute sequence was performed with engaging enchantment and admirable detail. Be it the eerie sonic clouds of the opening pages or the interwoven layers of Williams’s five-note principal motive and the When You Wish upon a Star quotation, the orchestra got it all going with delightful naturalness, yielding to an enthralling performance.

While Ron Howard’s Irish-tinged settler epic Far and Away (1992) may not be counted among the director’s most memorable films, Williams’s colourful musical setting, however, has fared far better over the years. In fact, the score got its first complete CD outing from LaLaLand Records earlier this year, whereas the composer recently reworked an excerpt from the original music for violin and orchestra, dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter, who performed it with Williams both on disc and at the Musikverein last year.

In the Berlin programme, a small orchestral suite from Far and Away was included, incorporating the film’s romance, action and comedy into a concert item clad in full technicolor. Highlighting with the flamboyant rumble and flare of Donnybrook Fair, juxtaposed with the airy love music, the performance of suite was a case in point of marvellous symphonic story-telling.

Alongside Star Wars and all the Spielberg collaborations, Williams’s contributions to the first three Harry Potter films are among his most iconic film scores. In Berlin, three selections from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were included, with the well-known orchestral canvases of Hedwig’s Theme and Harry’s Wondrous World framing Nimbus 2000, a captivating miniature for wind ensemble, calling forth the utmost agility and musicianship.

A combination of orchestral bravura and almost operatic instrumental narrative, the Berliners’ take on the Harry Potter sequence was pure delight. Beautifully paced by the composer, the symphonic dramaturgy was unraveled with utmost sensitivity and fine-tuned detail, resulting in a series of unforgettable musical moments.

The first half of the evening was brought to its uplifting close with one of Williams’s most evocative pieces, Theme from Jurassic Park (1993). The opening horn call was clad in terrific misterioso raiments, enhanced by the sublime echo effect in the second half of the phrase. Setting the musical fantasy alight, an orchestral build-up of captivating intensity ensued, reaching zenith with the full-blown majesty of the silvery trumpets, sounding out Williams’s gorgeous main theme. One of the personal highlights for this writer, the performance was simply a dream come true.

John Williams on the podium. © Stephan Rabold

After the intermission, the composer and the orchestra picked up the musical narrative from where they left, saluting their audience with a glorious account of the Superman March (1978). A manifestation of orchestral majesty, the theme was given a splendid workout, getting the second half going with a veritable sonic festival.

Some of Williams’s most inspired orchestral writing can be found in the Indiana Jones films, as the three selections with the Berlin Philharmonic resoundingly demonstrated. The fabulous Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra (1989) from the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, was performed with riveting dexterity and vigor, with its ever-transforming instrumental fabric masterfully laid out by the orchestra. A feast of symphonic colour, the Scherzo came off as one of the most thrilling cues of the second half.

As pointed out by Mr Williams in one of his delightfully casual on-stage commentaries, the pleasure of hearing all the instrumental detail played by a wonderful orchestra, without the distraction of sound effects and dialogue, was indeed a privilege for the composer and the audience alike.

Although written for the first Indiana Jones film in 1981, Marion’s Theme was not reworked into fully-fledged concert setting until quite recently. For this purpose, the composer went forth to write a stunning B-section for his original theme, giving rise to an absolutely beautiful concertante piece, one fully endorsed by the extraordinary warmth of the Berlin Phil performance.

Rounding off with a fabulous take on The Raiders March, the orchestra paid homage to Williams’s impeccable sonic imagination with their gorgeously shaped phrases and spot-on rhythmic impetus. A classic reinvented, the March sounded simply wonderful.

A piece of flickering, candle-lit beauty, Williams’s Elegy for Cello and Orchestra is based on a musical fragment from his 1997 film score Seven Years in Tibet. Originally written as a memorial piece for cello and piano, the composer went on to produce an orchestral version, first performed by Yo-Yo Ma in recording sessions for Sony.

Scored for solo cello and an orchestra of two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two horns and strings, the Elegy is a sublime affair. With blues-tinged undertones woven into the fabric, the music unfolds poignantly within its gripping arch, yielding to a profoundly moving instrumental miniature.

Performed with prayer-like commitment and delicate finesse by Delepelaire, the wistful cello line unfolded touchingly while the orchestra softly ringed out the delicate orchestral texture under the composer’s direction. A contemplative oasis in musical sounds, the Elegy was a precious rarity.

John Williams introducing Bruno Delepelaire.
© Stephan Rabold

To close the concert proper, three selections from the Star Wars Saga were given terrific performances. Somewhat unexpectedly, the sequence was introduced with the upbeat orchestral fantasy of The Adventures of Han (2018), Williams’s contribution to the spin-off film Solo – A Star Wars Story. Although scored for the most part by John Powell, Williams provided the film with a new principal theme, conceived and recorded as a standalone item, subsequently incorporated and developed throughout the film as a part of Powell’s original score.

A virtuoso piece for orchestra, The Adventures of Han was completely owned by the Berlin Phil. With Williams on the podium, the performance soared with youthful energy and radiance, to an invigorating effect.

Going back to the original trilogy, the musical odyssey was completed with the sublime majesty of Yoda’s Theme, followed by the solemn festivity of Throne Room and End Title. Under the composer’s baton, the Berliners made the two pieces into their own, combining Williams’s astonishing invention with the splendid sonic tradition of the orchestra. Rediscoveries in lyricism, the performances brought the house down.

Lauded with standing ovations, the orchestra and Williams treated their audience with no less than three encores. Keeping up with the galaxy far, far away, Princess Leia’s Theme was given in one of the finest outings in living memory (and recorded history). The opening’s Debussy-inspired pairing of solo flute and horn lines resulted in pure magic, while the tutti sections were clad in raiments of unearthly beauty, yielding to a musical tableau ever etched in memory.

A change of scene into top-class orchestral levitation, the second encore provided a spirited take on the Flying Theme from E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial. Performed with joyful glee by the composer and the orchestra, the music carried an invigorating spell within its fabric, resolving into child-like playfulness, brought to life with almost Ravelian instrumental delight.

Standing ovation for John Williams and the Berlin Philharmonic. © Stephan Rabold

To wrap it all up, finally, there was one final word from Lord Vader, as Williams lead the orchestra through the formidable relentlessness of The Imperial March, the composer’s splendid anthem for George Lucas’s archetypal villain. A performance of deep, dark colours and unyielding rhythmic facade, the evening was concluded with an orchestral tour-de-force, evoking equally thunderous final ovations from the elated audience.

Berliner Philharmoniker

John Williams, conductor

Bruno Delepelaire, cello

John Williams: Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984)

John Williams: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Excerpts

John Williams: Far and Away (1992): Suite

John Williams: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001): Hedwig’s Theme

John Williams: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001): Nimbus 2000

John Williams: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001): Harry’s Wondrous World

John Williams: Theme from Jurassic Park (1993)

John Williams: Superman March (1978)

John Williams: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989): Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra

John Williams: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Marion’s Theme

John Williams: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): The Raiders March

John Williams: Elegy for Cello and Orchestra (1997/2001)

John Williams: Solo – A Star Wars Story (2018): The Adventures of Han

John Williams: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980): Yoda’s Theme

John Williams: Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (1977): Throne Room and End Title

John Williams: Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (1977): Princess Leia’s Theme

John Williams: E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): Flying Theme

John Williams: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980): The Imperial March

Philharmonie, Berlin

© Jari Kallio

Thursday 14 October, 8 pm

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