John Williams at Carnegie Hall

Photo © Chris Lee

A review of the concert performed by Maestro Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City on April 21, 2022

The Legacy of John Williams is happy to present a review of this very special concert performance written by guest contributor Sean Wilson, a UK-based film journalist specialized in film soundtracks.

Across the Stars: John Williams at the Carnegie Hall
By Sean Wilson

How many individuals can command a standing ovation by simply walking into the room? John Williams is one of them.

So revered is the composer, now 90 years old, that anticipation at last night’s Carnegie Hall performance in New York was at fever pitch before Williams had even picked up his conductor’s baton.

But that’s what comes of a beloved artist and iconoclastic talent who has grown into his own legend. Now in his 50th year of collaborating with director Steven Spielberg (their next movie, The Fabelmans, is scheduled for release in November 2022), Williams is also the second-most Oscar nominated Individual in the history of the Academy Awards.

What audiences were privy to at the Carnegie Hall was, therefore, no ‘mere’ classical concert. It was a piece of history in the making. And it’s a testament to Williams’ artistic and intellectual capabilities that he is consistently able to exhibit fresh nuance and unexpected avenues during his live performances.

Above all else, the “Across the Stars” concert, showcasing the excellent playing of the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, was a testament to Williams’ capacity for collaboration. As a composer for film, Williams routinely finds himself engaged in dialogue with directors, editors, producers and more, all of whom collaborate to ensure the best musical vision for the project.

John Williams on the podium at Carnegie Hall, April 21, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Brian Vinik)

“Across the Stars” continued Williams’ partnership with the esteemed violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter with whom he has worked, to acclaimed effect, on the two recent concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic.

In placing Mutter centre stage, Williams not only humbly ceded the spotlight but allowed a different side of his compositional personality to emerge. Williams sees himself first and foremost as a composer of music who primarily works in film.

However, his reputation as a composer for concertos stretches back to his pre-Star Wars days in the late 1960s, and this bracing, near-avant garde experimentalism has always sat alongside his more famous, crowd-pleasing endeavours.

The centrepiece of “Across the Stars” was Williams’ ‘Violin Concerto No. 2,’ composed specifically for Mutter and making its New York debut. The 35-minute long piece exhibited the long-standing influence of Igor Stravinsky on Williams’ work – the extended piece was, by turns, melancholic and fiercely turbulent, Mutter’s emphatic playing veering between dervish-stylish aggression and keening poignancy.

‘I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie Mutter and the violin itself – an instrument that is the unsurpassed product of the luthier’s art,’ Williams explains. ‘I recalled her flair for an infectious rhythmic swagger that is particularly her own.’

Bedded within the piece, one could hear trace elements of the darker material for the likes of Jaws, Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds. Although none of those scores made an appearance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind emerged from a host of darkly tremulous strings into its signature, major key, five-note theme of hope and acceptance.

Mutter’s playing dominated throughout, in line with Williams’ tendency to shake up cues both familiar and less so. ‘The Duel’ from The Adventures of Tintin established a witty dialogue between brassy orchestral pulses and Mutter’s whimsical phrasing, approximating the feel of a sword fight.

Mutter’s playing of the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List (originally performed by Itzhak Perlman) was a heart-wrenching highlight, almost reducing itself to an agonised whisper at stages. By contrast, her adaptation of Williams’ swooning love theme ‘Across the Stars’ from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (with its sumptuous echo of Nino Rota) was a testament to the mutability of Williams’ creations.

John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter at Carnegie Hall, April 21, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Brian Vinik)

Of course, one cannot discount the crowd-pleasing hits. The Korngold-style brassy punch of Hook, eventually giving way to the soaring majesty of the flying theme, remains one of Williams’ grandest achievements. The thunderous, spine-tingling crescendos of ‘Throne Room and End Title’ (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) and E.T. embody Williams’ extraordinary success in re-establishing the symphonic parameters of film music in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mutter’s string dialogue with the featherlight celesta on ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter was a charming reinvention of a blockbuster classic. And amidst all of the more familiar cues, one could sense Williams’ desire to shake up his all-encompassing concert catalogue, throwing in a performance of the Oscar-nominated, noir-inflected and overlooked Cinderella Liberty from 1972 (again, Mutter led on the solo violin).

John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter at Carnegie Hall, April 21, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Brian Vinik)

“Across the Stars” was an exhilarating evening, rousing, introspective and celebratory by turns. It demonstrated Williams’ enviable capacity for reinvention and collaboration, even in his ninth decade.

Williams’ virtuosic and energetic conducting belies his years, commanding the first and second string players with a quicksilver hand gesture even while he focuses on a different part of the orchestra entirely.

One senses that, before long, Williams will eventually wind down these sorts of engagements (he’s been picking and choosing his film projects for many years now). But such performances will live forever in the minds of the people who attended.

Listen to a full stream of the concert courtesy of WQXR Radio:

Concert Program

  • Sound the Bells!
  • Violin Concerto No. 2
  • Across the Stars from Attack of the Clones for Violin and Orchestra
  • Flight to Neverland from Hook
  • Excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • “The Duel” from The Adventures of Tintin for Violin and Orchestra
  • Theme from Cinderella Liberty for Violin and Orchestra
  • Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter for Violin and Orchestra
  • Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars
  • Theme from Schindler’s List
  • Flying Theme from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
  • The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back

Sean Wilson is a digital soundtrack journalist with extensive experience writing for Cineworld Cinemas, Composer Magazine, Den of Geek, Flickering Myth and HeyUGuys. Based in Bristol, southwest UK, he has conducted numerous interviews with many of Hollywood’s most accomplished film composers. His first book, The Sound of Cinema, is about to be published by McFarland Books.