Or: How the music of John Williams shines in the jubilant performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and its esteemed conductor Gustavo Dudamel
Facing the music of a very well-known composer with a repertoire brimful of many well-known and beloved compositions always poses a series of problems and considerations for conductors and musicians around the world. Sometimes, it’s inescapable and even necessary to invite audiences to listen (once again) to Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No.5, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—other than being some of the greatest music ever composed, in the hands of the greatest conductors and most talented musicians they can reveal new details and nuances of beauty even to the most trained ears. These are observations that border on the obvious, but when preparing a concert program or a new recording, it’s something that always comes up in the minds of both music-makers and music-lovers. Is this just playing it safe for audiences that pay their subscriptions mostly to hear the classics? Or is it undaunted respect and veneration for the great masterpieces of art? Keeping it to the classical music history and repertoire, the most courageous conductors and orchestras around the world always tried to mix the old with the new, the well-known with the un-known, to keep audiences engaged and interested, while also gently encouraging them to broaden their views.
Film music is a fairly new entry into the world of live concert performances. Until a couple of decades ago, attending a symphonic concert featuring film music selections would be likely limited to a single performance during the summer “pops” season—unless someone like John Williams would be on the podium. The composer has been the first major musical figure to introduce film music pieces (including his own) into the consciousness of concert-goers and classical music lovers and leading them to accept it as part of the canon. During his tenure as principal conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980 to 1993, Williams performed at least one or two selections of film-music into the regular programs of the Pops season, thus bringing the repertoire to a wider audience than ever before.
Today, film-music is part of the regular season programming of almost every major orchestra in the world, thanks also to the phenomenon of live-to-picture presentation shows. But when performed just on his own, without any visual aid, a film-music concert has usually been a sort of “greatest hits” show featuring the most famous themes and pieces from the repertoire, from Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind to Henry Mancini’s theme from Pink Panther or Maurice Jarre’s Overture from Lawrence of Arabia, passing perhaps through something from Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone and John Williams. Of course there is nothing wrong in programming a concert like this, but the risk in doing this is to push film-music into a very narrow corner, mostly limited to the success of the films themselves, thus forgetting the quality of the music and the talent of the composers who wrote it.
However, we’re now entering into a new phase, where a new generation of conductors and musicians finally don’t see the need to label and categorize music, especially the one written for other mediums like film music. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and its current music director Gustavo Dudamel have recently given one of the most beautiful and thrilling example of this unrivalled cross-cultural, cross-genre attitude in their live performance celebrating the music of John Williams, a concert held at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in January 2019 and also immortalized on a live recording recently released on the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon.
The brilliant Venezuelan-born conductor has always been a passionate advocate of Williams’ music and already devoted an entire concert to celebrate the composer during the Opening Night Gala of the LA Phil’s season in 2014. During that concert, which featured an equal balance of well-known pieces (Star Wars, Jaws, Schindler’s List) and lesser-known gems (the beautiful “Escapades” from Catch Me If You Can and the rarely performed concert piece “Soundings”), Dudamel showed how his flamboyant conducting style was a perfect match to Williams’ eloquently symphonic writing. The composer himself showed a sincere admiration and artistic kinship for the talented conductor since he was appointed Principal Conductor of the LA Phil, to the point he also invited Dudamel to conduct a several cues during the recording sessions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015.
Like many others, Williams is enthralled by Dudamel’s uncanny ability to infuse joy, enthusiasm and positive energy into the music he’s performing. And under his command, the LA Phil – an orchestra very close to John Williams’ heart and accustomed to his music – is the perfect vehicle, capable to explode in a huge variety of colors while keeping a very sharp, cogent sound. In this sense, the new recording Celebrating John Williams: Live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall is probably one of Dudamel’s and LA Phil’s greatest achievements so far, offering some of the best performances ever recorded of the composer’s most classic and famous scores.
The concert was as a matter of fact conceived and programmed like a night of John Williams’ Greatest Hits: Close Encounters, Harry Potter, Schindler’s List, Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Star Wars… Fans and admirers were probably not-so thrilled at reading the programme, which featured virtually all the most famous pieces of Williams’ repertoire that have been performed and recorded hundreds of times in the last three decades. And here is where Dudamel’s touch and the LA Phil’s impeccable performance make the real difference. Williams’ music leaps off the page and shines a new light and even the most ubiquitous pieces like the “Imperial March”, the theme from Jurassic Park and the “Raiders March” get a new compelling character. The music sounds lush, grand and more sparkling than ever before, revealing all its colours and intricacies.
Dudamel’s preferred disposition of the orchestra seating (also known as the “Mahler layout”) perhaps gives the music a different flavour than usual, enhancing even more Williams’ unrivalled contrapuntal writing, as evidenced in the selection from Jaws (“Out to Sea/The Shark Cage Fugue”):
The conductor has been lauded many times for his unbridled energy and his razor-sharp detail to bring out the most dazzling colours out of the orchestra, something that usually comes forward during the various scherzo and allegro con brio of the many symphonic masterpieces he frequently conducted with both the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and the LA Phil during his career. When conducting John Williams’ energetic pieces, Dudamel and the LA Phil make no exception, as we can hear in their ebullient reading of the brilliant Walton-esque “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
Dudamel – who is considered one of today’s most fervent interpreters of Gustav Mahler’s music – is also able to bring out the Mahler-like qualities hidden in many of Williams’ scores: the “Adagio” from The Force Awakens (a concert adaptation of a film cue from the seventh episode of the Star Wars series) is a testament of the composer’s love for heartfelt string writing, which Dudamel renders with an almost reverential tone:
The closing selection, the jubilant “March” from Superman, is performed with exhilarating enthusiasm and capped off by a roaring applause that truly sounds like a liberating triumph of cheer. In his review of the concert, Los Angeles Times’ music critic Mark Swed wrote specifically about this unrestrained joy that the music of John Williams is able to instill to the audience, even recognizing how crucial this sense of joy is in this specific period of our history:
But what made this the most memorable and meaningful of Williams’ tributes was Dudamel’s message of responsibility. He paid attention to detail, such as in the inner sonic and surprising harmonic experiments in “Close Encounters” and the equally surprising Bartók-ian counterpoint in, of all things, the “Shark Cage” fugue from “Jaws.”
Through all this was a continual emphasis on Williams’ capacity for musical transformation. His ways of developing his themes may be his greatest gift, finding ever more value in presenting a character or situation in a new light. It is this that most humanizes so many of the films he’s scored, that makes music a symbol of hope.
That is why Williams’ music can make you feel a little bit better than you did before. That is also why one synonym for transformation happens to be, and seemed necessarily so in Dudamel’s John Williams performances at this crucial historical moment, revolution.
Even if we listened to John Williams’ most famous pieces countless times both live and on disc, this remarkable recording reminds every music lover why it’s important is to keep this joyous flame alive and renew with passion and enthusiasm the backbone literature of any musical repertoire.
Links and references
- Gustavo Dudamel Official Website: https://www.gustavodudamel.com/
- Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Official Website: https://www.laphil.com/
- Official Album page on Deutsche Grammophon: https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/cat/4836647
- Why Dudamel conducting John Williams’ music in Disney Hall is unlike any Williams music you’ve heard before, concert review by Mark Swed: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-laphil-dudamel-williams-review-20190125-story.html