Inspire in absentia: Memoirs from London and Vienna

The London Symphony Orchestra performing the concert “A Celebration of John Williams” at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday October 26th, 2018 (Photo by Christie Goodwin, courtesy of Royal Albert Hall)

As it was announced just a couple of days before the show, John Williams had to cancel his appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London on October 26, 2018 due to a last-minute illness that unfortunately caught him upon his arrival in the UK’s capitol. The composer was set to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a long-awaited concert featuring his beloved movie music in a career-spanning program. The event (which sold-out in a few hours after it was announced in February 2018) was tremendously anticipated by fans of John Williams all around the world–the concert would have been his first on the European soil after twenty years (his last concert happened indeed in London in 1998 with the LSO). Admirers from all corners of Europe and even from other continents booked flights, hotels and tickets to not miss the event. The orchestra, the Royal Albert Hall management and the composer himself were also anticipating with thrill what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime evening. The occasion was all the more special because of the true “special relationship” between Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra and, as producer Mike Matessino wrote on the concert’s program notes, with the London music scene in general, a love affair that goes back since the late 1960s, when Williams ended up living and working in the city for several projects.

So, everyone was disappointed about this sudden news, but most of all, fans and admirers of the composer were concerned about the Maestro’s health, especially after reading he had to be hospitalised and kept under medical care. Fortunately, reliable sources confirmed it was a routine illness for which he needed rest. However, Williams was adamant that the concert would take place nonetheless and, in one of those rare circumstances where the motto “The Show Must Go On” is really fitting, he appointed esteemed conductor Dirk Brossé to replace him on the podium to conduct the LSO in the program he envisioned for the audience at the Royal Albert Hall.

The event, happily for everyone, turned out to be one of the most sincere and heartfelt celebrations of John Williams’ music ever made. Despite his physical absence was truly felt by everyone, a packed Royal Albert Hall (5,000-seating venue completely sold-out) welcomed the London Symphony Orchestra on stage. The players were visibly touched and thrilled by the atmosphere and, as they promised before the show, would have done anything to celebrate Williams’ music by “playing their hearts out”.

The sold-out Royal Albert Hall on Friday, October 2018 (Photo by Christie Goodwin; courtesy of Royal Albert Hall)

LSO’s Chairman and Principal Flute Gareth Davies took the word before the show to express the orchestra’s deep affection toward John Williams and his music, but also to read to the audience a letter that the composer himself addressed to the orchestra on that same day:

The letter John Williams wrote to the London Symphony Orchestra (courtesy of the LSO Twitter account)

A thunderous applause followed, with the awareness that, as it was announced, Williams was listening to the live radio broadcast aired by Classic FM. The sincere outpouring of love from the whole venue was a very touching moment. And the concert that followed turned out to be a real tribute to a living legend. Maestro Dirk Brossé conducted the LSO impeccably and the orchestra indeed outshined itself with one of their best live performances to date, according to many people attending. The program was conceived as a sort of “greatest hits” of Williams’ most famous compositions for film, with almost every single blockbuster he worked on covered at least by one selection–from Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, from Superman to Harry Potter and Jurassic Park, the unforgettable themes and powerful orchestrations for which the composer became a household name filled the acoustics of the Albert Hall, thanks in no small part by the incredible performance of the LSO–the group was indeed playing with visible joy and enthusiasm.

Dirk Brossé conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall for “A Celebration of John Williams” (Photo by Christie Goodwin, courtesy of Royal Albert Hall)

Members of the orchestra also took the word between pieces to recount anecdotes and stories about their relationship with the composer, showing how much the music of John Williams helped to shape more than one generation of musicians. A couple of lesser-known selections made the way into the program: the beautiful, gothic-laden “End Titles” from Dracula (1979, another collaboration between Williams and the LSO) and the new arrangement of “Han Solo and the Princess” (a.k.a. the love theme from The Empire Strikes Back). But probably the most emotional moment of the evening was the “Theme from Schindler’s List”, performed with heartfelt nuance by LSO’s Principal Violin Carmine Lauri. The evening roared into the ending with three encores (the theme from Jaws, “Yoda’s Theme” from The Empire Strikes Back and the immortal “Raiders’ March”), sending off the audience with thunderous cheer and applause.

By all accounts, the concert was a true celebration and this was rendered even more special and heartfelt by being together with many people, fans and friends of John Williams’ music. Members of the online community of gathered in the afternoon of October 26, together with record producer Mike Matessino and radio host/concert producer Tim Burden, to celebrate the Maestro’s legacy with the London Symphony. The people also signed a well wishes card to be delivered to Williams’ managers. What strikes here, besides love and admiration, is how much the word inspiration is used. This made me realize how big the legacy of John Williams truly is, in a time in which the composer still is, luckily for all of us, active and writing new music.

The card signed by fans of John Williams (courtesy of message board)

A very similar thing happened also in Vienna last weekend. John Williams was set to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker at the historic Musikverein on November 3 & 4 in a program of his music, but had to cancel for the same reasons he had to pull out his London performance. This was a very special context and something that, according to several sources, was dear to Williams’ heart. It would have been the first appearance of the Maestro in the city that is called “the cradle of Western Music” and inside the temple in which all the greats of the European music tradition performed over the last three centuries. In many ways this was seen as a sort of final achievement–the Wiener Philharmoniker is one of the most conservative music institution in the world and they never performed a full concert of film music. This occasion would have been a first for them too and it’s surely a sign of the changing times, where film music and its great composers are being finally recognized even by the most prestigious orchestras in Europe.

Differently than what happened in London, the Musikverein and Wiener Philharmoniker decided to cancel the concerts and refund all the tickets. Being an almost last-minute cancellation, many fans and lovers of John Williams’ music traveled to Vienna nonetheless, much likely having an excuse to enjoy a nice weekend in one of Europe’s most beautiful and art-filled cities. Outside the Musikverein, a small piece of white paper saying “cancelled” and a few words of remarks was sticked on the posters announcing the event. And several people decided to leave a few messages of well wishes to John Williams:

The card outside the Musikverein announcing the cancellation of the John Williams’ concerts, which turned out to become a lovely well-wishes card (Photo by Maurizio Caschetto)

Again, what touches is how many times people expressed their gratitude and recognized how much of an inspiration John Williams is for them.

After seeing this, I realized that I’ve been witness of something very unique and perhaps even magical. We all missed seeing John Williams performing his music on these two occasions and we sincerely hope he will be in great shape again soon and perhaps still willing to make the effort to travel to Europe and doing these promised concerts in London and Vienna as soon as he can. But, in the end, what truly matters (after health concerns of course) is the music itself. The product of a brilliant creative mind and deep soul that reaches the hearts of millions around the world since decades. The spark of inspiration he ignited in so many people to pick up an instrument and learn to play, to write, to study or just simply to enjoy great music. And the joy he gave to many in sharing this passion together with others. The day John Williams won’t be physically among us anymore won’t be the end, because it’s the music that will live on for centuries to come, inspiring new people and continuing to be a very special gift to many. This isn’t a small feat, it’s something precious that pertains only to the true Greats. Hence, the music of John Williams is something any illness or unexpected turn of events can’t ever take away from us.


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