At The Crossroad of History: John Williams in Berlin

A reflection on the already historic concerts of Maestro John Williams with the legendary Berliner Philharmoniker held at the Philharmonie Hall of Berlin on October 14, 15 and 16, 2021

John Williams conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker (Photo © Stephan Rabold)

Berlin has always been a nexus of Europe on many fronts: historically, politically, and artistically. The city itself is a manifestation of cultural crossroads with its magnificent architecture, the striking mixture of styles of its many buildings and the diversity of its citizens. The same can be said about its rich musical life, always one of the true distinctive traits of the city’s cultural identity. It was the first European city that, during the 1920s, welcomed the revolution of jazz and gave birth to a new wave of artists and musicians who experimented with abstract musical forms, but also tried to remain firmly grounded in reality. Yet Berlin remained one of the strongholds of the great classical tradition as well, especially after the tragedies of World War II, a place where the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann has always been at home. It’s perhaps in this regard that the recent visit of John Williams in Berlin to conduct three concerts of his beloved film music with the legendary Berliner Philharmoniker sounds like another event that happens in this unique crossroad of the history of Western civilization.

This is a necessary framework to put in a better and maybe even larger context what happened during these three joyous nights of unforgettable music. It would be very easy to brush off any attempt of giving this event a profound intellectual or cultural significance, saying that this is just a celebration of the popularity and success of an old venerable Film-Kapellmeister, but it would be such a parochial statement that completely misses the point of why these concerts were extremely successful and also significant. For many years, film music has always been seen and judged by the courts of classical music as an ancillary discipline or, even worse, as a deplorable act of commercialism. Many composers who emigrated to Hollywood from Europe in the 1930s after the advent of fascism, including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, found an enormous fortune by working for the film industry, but were constantly ripped apart by the critics and the classical intelligentsia for their choice of composing for films, a stygma that in many cases was brought forward even after their passing. This perception fortunately changed throughout the years, to the point where now film music is considered a legitimate artform worth of any talented composer. And this is in large part thanks to the continuous pursuit of excellence that characterized the musical life of John Williams, who probably more than any other composer active in film, has done an incredible amount of heavylifting to make film music properly recognized in the concert hall. Film music might be just Gebrauchsmusik in the eyes of many (and some of it surely is), but in the hands of its best practitioners like Maestro Williams, it can reach the heights of the greatest Absolutmusik ever produced, as these Berlin concerts successfully showed. So, at the crossroad of history, the music of John Williams found another important and, dare I say, essential historical recognition in the heart of Europe, the cradle of the great classical music.

John Williams and the Berliner Philharmoniker (Photo © Stephan Rabold)

John Williams made his mainland European conducting debut in January 2020, when he was invited by the Vienna Philharmonic to conduct two concerts of his film music. The cultural significance of those concerts has been already discussed on these pages, but the success of those performances, who also saw world-renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter joining Maestro Williams on stage, was also a noble statement of how much the music of this composer has reached such heights that its filmic nature is perhaps becoming less and less important to the eyes and the ears of its many listeners around the globe. It sounds almost like a contradictory statement, but the more years pass, the less John Williams’ music sounds like something born out of a very specific and even volatile necessity, i.e. accompanying a film narrative. It’s music that can be experienced and enjoyed simply for what it is: great music. It pushes all listeners to build their own cinematic stories thanks to its tremendous evocative power and impeccably constructed musical discourse, certainly reminding us of the emotions we felt while seeing galactic wars, adventures of globe-trotting archaelogists, bespectacled wizards on flying brooms, superheroes with red capes, and bikes flying over the moon, but at the same time making us feel dazzled, enthralled, and moved just through the notes as played by an ensemble of superlative musicians.

John Williams and the Berliner Philharmoniker (Photo © Stephan Rabold)

It was this sensational feeling of communal joy that characterized the impeccable, powerful performance by the Berlin Philharmonic on October 14, 15 and 16, 2021, in the wondrous atmosphere of the Philharmonie Hall, a place that saw all the world’s greatest musicians of the last 70 years playing the immortal masterworks of the classical repertoire. When it was announced last August that John Williams would be conducting the prestigious German orchestra, it sounded like another unmissable chance to see one of the world’s true greatest orchestras finally playing the rich symphonic scores conducted by its composer. The fact that Williams is now 89 gave the augmented feeling of a truly special occasion. But what was difficult to predict was the sheer amount of sincere enthusiasm and unbridled love that both the orchestra and the audience gifted the composer when he walked on the stage of the Philharmonie and started to conduct his magnificent “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”, written for the 1984 Olympic Games of Los Angeles. Virtually all the members of the Berlin Phil were smiling, communicating a sense of joy that was truly felt in their fantastic playing. The vulcanic power of the brass section, the lush yet controlled sound of the strings, the finesse and delicacy of the woodwinds, and the precision of attack of the percussion section, all conducted almost with a sense of grace by Maestro Williams, filled the hall up to the roof and cast a magical spell on the audience. Rarely I experienced a performance filled with such dignity, power and, above all, happiness. The composer was clearly enjoying himself, exchanging smiles and joyful looks with all the players, working out brilliantly a program that included timeless classics of his repertoire including excerpts from the Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and Star Wars series, and also a few lesser-known works, like the joyful Ireland-meets-Hollywood suite from Far and Away. It’s hard to single out specific highlights, as all the pieces were dominated by superlative performances, as noted by music critic Jari Kallio in his glowing review. All the orchestra’s principal parts were in top form, including principal cellist Bruno Delepelaire who gifted the audience with a wistful, moving reading of Williams’ powerful “Elegy” for cello and orchestra, possibly the highest moment of the program. The softer, almost pianissimo moments shined with particular brilliance thanks to the marvelous acoustics of the Philharmonie.

John Williams addresses the audience before the performance of “Elegy” for cello and orchestra, with Berlin Philharmonic principal cellist Bruno Delepelaire as the soloist (Photo © Stephan Rabold)

What is undoubtebly striking is seeing and feeling the wash of sincere love and affection that an enthusiastic audience tributed to the Maestro during these three nights. This is not something that can be explained just with popularity or sentimental attachment to film franchises that are continuously revived (and still in need of his talent). What these concerts demonstrate is that the music of John Williams is already living its own legacy as part of the world’s cultural and artistic heritage we’re all carrying through the 21st century. It’s a crucial element in the lives of millions, perhaps even billions of people around the world, who know many of his tunes by heart, like it was for the people of late 1800s with the arias and themes of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, and associate them not just to the movies themselves, but to what those films are representing, the ideas at their core, and the tradition upon which they were built, like a true piece of mythology. And, in the end, who we were when we first experienced those notes. When the inevitable “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back blasted in its full power as the final encore of the concert, the thrill felt by the audience wasn’t just because they were suddenly reminded of an arch-villain dressed in black, but because that march is now part of their lives and, even after 41 years and a million plays, it’s still a fantastic piece of music. And when Maestro Williams exited the Philharmonie to mount on his car at the end of the night, he was surprisingly greeted by a large group of fans who started to sing aloud the “Raiders March”, as if he has now turned into the real hero.

Luckily for all his admirers living in the Old Continent, the European endeavours of John Williams won’t finish in Berlin, as it has already been announced that in June 2022 the Maestro will conduct the Filarmonica della Scala in a concert of his music at the legendary Teatro alla Scala in Milano, Italy, otherwise known as the home of the great opera composers Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti and a further temple of the great classical music. It will be another historic moment which we all will be delighted to be witness of.

John Williams and the Berliner Philharmoniker (Photo © Stephan Rabold)

A sidenote to underline the enthusiasm of the Berlin Philharmonic members throughout the week with John Williams. After the concert, I had the pleasure to speak briefly with a few of them (including flutist Yubeen Kim, hornist Stefan Jezerski and violist Joaquim Riquelme Garcia) and they all told me how happy and lucky they felt to have had the opportunity to perform under John Williams, as all of them love his music. For some of them it was really the dream of a lifetime that became true and you could see this feeling on their faces during the performance (which was also captured for the Berlin Phil’s digital streaming platform Digital Concert Hall and will soon be available on demand). Hornist Sarah Willis, a professed fan of John Williams, told me that the horn section felt a special magic playing with John Williams for the first time and her enthusiasm was still glowing at the end of the performance. And the reverence was clearly mutual, as Williams called them “the world’s greatest orchestra” during one of his speeches between pieces. Another testament of the Maestro’s enduring legacy.

The horn section of the Berlin Philharmonic (from left to right): Stefan Jezierski, Georg Schreckenberger, Sarah Willis, Chris Parkes, Paula Ernesaks, Johannes Lamotke

John Williams Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic, Philharmonie Hall, Berlin, October 14, 15, 16, 2021

Program

  • Olympic Fanfare and Theme
  • Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Suite from Far and Away
  • Three Selections from Harry Potter:
    Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
    Nimbus 2000 from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
    Harry’s Wondrous World from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Theme from Jurassic Park
    Intermission
  • Superman March
  • Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • The Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Elegy, for Violoncello and Orchestra (soloist, Bruno Delepelaire)
  • The Adventures of Han from Solo: A Star Wars Story
  • Yoda’s Theme from The Empire Strikes Back
  • Throne Room and End Title from Star Wars
    ENCORES
  • Princess Leia’s Theme from Star Wars (only Oct. 14)
  • Flying from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back

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