This Is No Fantasy: «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT Review

The City Light Symphony Orchestra and Anthony Gabriele (Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

The world premiere of John Williams’ majestic score performed live to picture by City Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anthony Gabriele exhilarates the audience at the KKL in Lucerne

As promised in the days before the event, the audience attending the world premiere of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT at the KKL Lucerne (Switzerland) was in for a real treat. John Williams’ stirring musical score literally took flight in a majestic performance by the City Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by film specialist Anthony Gabriele. Rarely the 1978 film looked and sounded more soaring that this and the choice of presenting John Williams’ Academy Award-nominated, Grammy Award-winning score live to picture is really an inspired one.

Superman chasing rockets during the world premiere of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT (Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

It’s fair to say that the ‘Film with Orchestra’ format has become a beacon for the presentation of classic film scores in concert halls around the world. While it’s quite common for orchestras to have specific “Film Night” concert programs (especially during the summer seasons), the live-to-picture concerts became very prominent in recent years to the point that it’s not unusual now to see major symphony orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony or the Philadelphia Orchestra having them as part of their regular subscription seasons. Some of John Williams’ most famous and beloved film scores have received this special treatment, including the Star Wars original trilogy, the three Harry Potter films, and such key Steven Spielberg collaborations as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park, with the Holiday classic Home Alone completing the list of classic John Williams titles available in this format. These scores are getting a new life with these concert presentations, offering the audience an opportunity to appreciate the immense contribution of John Williams’ music in such films and the pivotal role of the symphony orchestra when accompanying and enhancing the storytelling and the characters. Experiencing the complete score performed live in perfect sync with the images makes very clear that it’s the music carrying the weight of the film’s inner emotions. It must be noted that the Maestro himself has been one of the pioneers in this regard back in 2002, when he conducted a live to picture performance of E.T. at the Shrine Auditorium for the film’s 20th anniversary, foreshadowing what would become a standard practice a decade later.

Anthony Gabriele conducts the City Light Symphony Orchestra during the dress rehearsal of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT (Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

The organization Film Concerts Live has produced many of the above-mentioned titles (Star Wars and Harry Potter are managed by respectively Disney Concerts and CineConcerts) and made them available to orchestras to perform. The KKL in Lucerne has always been one of the preferred platforms to launch many of their catalog titles (thanks also to the enthusiasm of film music concert promoter Pirmin Zängerle, the manager of City Light Concerts who collaborates with IMG Artists and Film Concerts Live to help bringing these projects to the concert stage) and the world premiere of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT was no exception. The performance was originally scheduled to debut in May 2020, but the Coronavirus pandemic forced to postpone the event several times since then. Finally, the date of April 29, 2022, was set and Superman could finally have its long-awaited world premiere.

(Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

The film really doesn’t need much introduction neither a review. Directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent, Margot Kidder as reporter Lois Lane, Gene Hackman as evil mastermind Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando as Jor-El (plus an incredible roster of talented performers including Glenn Ford, Phillys Thaxter, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Terence Stamp and Trevor Howard), it’s considered one of the best comic-book films ever made and the blueprint for the superhero genre that became ubiquitous several decades later. Nevertheless, Donner’s film retains a sense of theatricality that virtually no other superhero film has been able to reproduce since with the same level of inspiration and respect for the source material. The special effects might look dated (but it’s surprising to see how well a lot of them still hold up), as also some of the film’s look (but the cinematography by English master lensman Geoffrey Unsworth is richer than any other superhero put on film), yet it’s almost impossible not to be swept away by the incredible charm of this film, thanks largely to Christopher Reeve’s definitive performance as the Man of Steel and his alter ego Clark Kent, and to John Williams’ triumphant score, which became the musical embodiment of the character and the mythology at its core. Experiencing all this in the live-to-picture concert presentation is exhilarating to say the least.

Christopher Reeve as Superman in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (Photo © Warner Bros., courtesy of

The City Light Symphony Orchestra was displayed in full force (83 elements) on the stage of the splendid KKL concert hall. Maestro Anthony Gabriele worked extensively throughout the whole week to prepare the performance. As he told in the podcast interview with The Legacy of John Williams, the score of Superman is a massive undertaking for any conductor and it poses challenges with its many different colours and settings, not to mention its sheer volume (almost 90 minutes of music over 143 minutes of film). All the hard work from orchestra and conductor showed off brilliantly in the very first minutes of the film, which opens with a spectacular 5-minute main title sequence in which Williams’ majestic Superman theme is displayed in full symphonic glory. The musicians responded mightily to Gabriele’s impeccable conducting: the brass were in full vigour, but never over the top; woodwinds added beautiful shimmering textures; strings were tight and in perfect harmony; percussion always entered at the right spot, accenting all the needed hits. In a nutshell, a true pitch-perfect performance rivaled only by the original film recording conducted by the composer himself with the London Symphony Orchestra. The presentation restored Williams’ original intended composition (the film mix uses a pitch-altered, trimmed-down take of the end credits piece, as explained by Mike Matessino in our podcast conversation), which syncs perfectly to the dazzling animation of the credits on screen, adding a further element of enjoyment. To add icing on the cake, the vibrant acoustics of the KKL contributed immensely to make the music shine.

(Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

The opening was the perfect hors d’oeuvre to what the audience experienced in the following two hours. Superman is a film rich of musical highlights and the live-to-picture presentation enhanced brilliantly the tone poem-like feeling of Williams’ compositions. The theatricality of Richard Donner’s film gave the composer a great canvas on which displaying fully developed musical narratives in conjunction with the film’s overall story arc. Seen with a live orchestra playing the score, Superman becomes a cinematic symphony, or a movie opera without singing, with its themes and leitmotifs recurring throughout the movie and enhancing the film’s emotions. The Krypton chapter was rendered beautifully by the CLSO, with its glacial textures and almost stoic tone that surges to operatic grandeur during the final moments of the ill-fated planet (the presentation also restores portions of the cue originally dialed out in the film’s mix); again, brass were particulary strong and to the point during these dramatic moments. After a brief impressionistic interlude accompanying baby Kal-El’s trip to earth (with some of Williams’ most virtuosic writing in the score, here rendered perfectly by the woodwind section of the CLSO), the film moves to the golden wheatfields of Kansas and the music warms up accordingly in tone and palette. The Smallville chapter showcases Andrew Wyeth-like framing and John Ford-esque simplicity, inspiring Willliams to write lovely Americana cues which offered a chance to display the beautiful singing qualities of the strings (led by concertmaster Jonas Moosman), the lyrical underpinning of the woodwind section (flutist Christian Madlener, oboist Kesley Maiorano and clarinetist Francesco Negrini) and the warm sound of the French Horns (led by Mate Borbiro); 1st trumpet Andreas Heusing also rose to the occasion during the nostalgic solo accompanying the funeral of Jonathan Kent.

Anthony Gabriele conducts the City Light Symphony Orchestra during the dress rehearsal of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT (Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

The Fortress of Solitude sequence is one of the longest (almost ten minutes of uninterrupted accompaniment) and musically challenging of the film, ranging from spare textures to chaotic dissonance by the full orchestra, but also flowering in lyricism during the segment of Jor-El’s instructions. Maestro Gabriele conducting was particularly sensitive and detailed during these moments and succeeded brilliantly in exploring the many different colours and nuances of the elaborate sequence. As the story goes to Metropolis and its snappy, comic strip-like pace, the music changes gear again, becoming “more gritty and suburban”, as Anthony Gabriele said in our interview. The centerpiece of this segment, and probably the film’s signature sequence, is Superman’s first public appearance when saving Lois Lane from a dramatic helicopter incident. The brilliance of this scene is well-renowned and it’s a masterclass in directing, editing and scoring, with all the elements coalescing together in one of the most exhilarating climaxes ever put on film. Williams’ musical accompaniment is virtuosic and exciting, with jagged rhythms to enhance the jeopardy first and then constructing an irresistible build-up for the hero appearance and finally releasing the tension with the most heroic presentation of the Superman March heard in the film. Again, the sequence was performed splendidly by the orchestra, with Gabriele hitting accurately all the sync points without giving away an inch of musicality.

Anthony Gabriele conducts the City Light Symphony Orchestra during the dress rehearsal of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT (Photo by Maurizio Caschetto)

The romantic relationship between Lois Lane and Superman offered John Williams the occasion to write one of the most inspired love themes of his entire career (a.k.a. “Can You Read My Mind”) and the flying over Metropolis sequence presents its most fascinating variation, here rendered with flair and substance by Gabriele and the CLSO. This segment was definitely one of the highlights of the evening and one of the major reasons why the live-to-picture concerts are an incredible chance for all film music lovers: to listen to a live performance of film cues that have often been neglected in the concert hall. Williams’ piece is a wonderful composition in itself that soars really high when accompanying the sequence, but could achieve the same result if performed by itself.

Margot Kidder as Lois Lane in «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT (Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

Orchestra and conductor continued to perform admirably well for the rest of the concert, accompanying the final third of the film with the right amount of tension, excitement and emotion. Gabriele moved expertly through a series of short, but thrilling action cues accompanying the jeopardy of the earthquake sequences, hitting all the right beats of Superman flying and saving the day, and finally reaching the climax during the “Turning Back the World” scene (a note of merit to French Horn player Mate Borbiro for the heart-wrenching solo in the final moments of “Flying to Lois”). The film reached its conclusion with a shortened rendition of the Superman March before giving way to the bombastic cymbal crash that ends the piece. The audience exploded in a roaring applause, cheering the City Light Symphony Orchestra and Anthony Gabriele for almost ten minutes of thunderous clapping to tribute their true “superfeats”. The conductor took time to acknowledge and give a spotlight to the many musicians for their heroic performance, having them standing up to receive a deserved applause. We appreciated already this orchestra’s genuine talent on last year’s recording Spotlight on John Williams, and they continue to keep a very high standard.

Superman flies away at the end of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT (Photo © Basil Boehni; City Light Concerts)

It was more than a successful night, it was a real triumph and congratulations must be made to everyone who made this possible. It will remain a moment to remember in the history of the ‘Film with Orchestra’ concerts. «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT will be performed on June 25 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, with Anthony Gabriele conducting the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and it’s sure to be another unmissable event. John Williams’ music really has a wonderful chance to shine in these performances, which really shows how great a dramatist and storyteller he has always been. As in all of his classic scores, the music of Superman is what makes the audience feel heroism, excitement and pure child-like joy. If we still believe a man can fly is in large part thanks to John Williams.

Special Thanks: Pirmin Zängerle and Basil Boehni (City Light Concerts) for their invaluable kindness and generosity; Michael Freiburg (IMG Artists) and Steve Linder (Film Concerts Live); Anthony Gabriele, Christopher Mason and Nikiforos Chrysoloras.

Watch an exclusive video featuring excerpts from the dress rehearsal and the concert finale of the world premiere of «SUPERMAN» – IN CONCERT