Reflections on the concert by John Williams with Filarmonica della Scala at Teatro alla Scala in Milan on December 12, 2022
When history unspools in front of your eyes, the feeling of living a moment in time becomes tangible. But when such events happen in places that are rich with an enormous heritage, where the walls have absorbed the cells of hundreds of thousands human beings of the past three centuries, it becomes almost overwhelming, as if you’re traveling in a time machine, or living in a history book. This is what happened on the 12th of December 2022, when John Williams stepped on the podium of Teatro alla Scala in Milano, Italy, to conduct the Filarmonica della Scala orchestra in a sold-out concert of his beloved film music. After his appearances in Vienna and Berlin, John Williams was invited to conduct in another cradle of European classical music that never saw film music being performed on its stage before and conquered it with a thunderous performance that left each member in the audience in a feeling of excitement that veered almost into ecstasy. The slew of superlatives should not be seen neither as mere flattery, nor as the easiest way to describe this joyous evening, but as the sincere testament of having been witness of an event that will remain in the annals of the history of music. If there is a living musician who really deserves sonorous adjectives, that is certainly John Williams.
The sensation that it would have been a night like no other was already palpable in the preceding days, when John Williams landed in Milano to start rehearsing with the Filarmonica. The concert tickets sold out in literally few minutes after the sale opened on October 10, a record that left everyone stunned and which led the Filarmonica to open the dress rehearsal the day before the concert to an audience of under 30s so that more people could have the chance to experience the unique chance of seeing the Maestro in action in such a unique location. And it’s indeed the venue, which the composer called “an unbelievably magical place”, that made this occasion something extraordinary on many levels. “La Scala”, as the Milanese call it, is perhaps the world’s most prestigious opera house, a crown’s jewel of architecture built in 1778 by genius Italian architect Giuseppe Piermarini in which virtually all the greatest opera composers saw their works performed on its huge stage surrounded by a six-stories semicircle of golden-and-red-velvet balconies: Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, just to name the most famous, all debuted their immortal operas in front of adoring crowds raptured by rich stories of drama, passion, love and death put into music by such geniuses. The composers themselves, especially Verdi and Puccini, were considered almost heroes by the popular audience; many of their tunes soon became part of the cultural fabric of Italian music, influencing many other European composers at the same time. And throughout the 20th century, La Scala also saw virtually all the greatest conductors appearing as guests on its stage, including Arturo Toscanini, Georges Pretre, Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti, just to name a few.
It has often been said that opera is the true precursor of cinema and its arts, but never this became truer than on the night of John Williams’ debut on the stage of Teatro alla Scala. If his concerts in Vienna and Berlin were the acknowledgement of Williams’ direct connection to the lineage of the great Central-Europe symphonists via their early Hollywood heirs, the Milan performance sealed his name forever to the tradition of opera composers who were both creative geniuses and popular stars, capable of satisfying both the rich music-literate fellow and the proletarian simple lover of great tunes and big emotions. As Emilio Audissino aptly points out in the program notes for the concert, if back in those days people were whistling Verdi’s arias when leaving the theatre, it’s now film themes by John Williams that keep lingering in the memory of moviegoers.
Possibly for the first time in decades, if not centuries, La Scala was packed with a mostly unconventional audience: many of them never put foot inside a opera house before, but they were all giddy with excitement to finally see their musical hero performing in front of them. The roar that welcomed John Williams on the stage from an audience who immediately stood up to cheer him was very much likely the loudest those walls ever heard since the days of Verdi’s Aida premiere in 1872. Even the banter and the giddiness of the audience were something that wouldn’t have been out of place during a performance of that era. This reaction is something that should lead to serious reflections about the current state of the so-called “art music” and how these places can return to be packed with people who simply want to enjoy great music that makes you feel joyous. The music of John Williams certainly belongs to this category, as it was clearly showed during the performance with Filarmonica della Scala, while also being incredibly refined in its craft and richly satisfying for the musicians to perform. The relationship of the instrumentalists with his music has always been a key point and, as it happens virtually in any symphony orchestra in the world, many members of the Filarmonica grew up listening to Williams’ music since they were very young or even kids. They spoke highly and with heartfelt enthusiasm about the experience of playing Williams’ music for the first time: Principal Horn Danilo Stagni noticed how the way Williams uses the horn is similar to Robert Schumann, right at the core of the orchestra; Principal Flute Andrea Manco said it was a huge emotion to be able to perform the many flute solos in the program with the Maestro on the podium and establishing a contact with him while playing; clarinetist Christian Chiodi observed that playing for Williams is like reliving those feelings when he was a kid growing up watching Star Wars for the first time; violinist Alessandro Ferrari says that his music is now part of our cultural DNA. All of this has nothing to do with stardom or blind veneration, it’s the consequence of the work of an artist who always served his muse with untamed commitment and found a deep connection with his own inner creative spirit, with which he celebrates the human spirit.
The night opened with the fanciful overture “Flight to Neverland” from Hook, which immediately put the orchestra’s strength at display thanks to its jubilant writing for the entire ensemble. Williams looked incredibly spry and active on the podium, feeling energized by the enthusiastic reaction of both the musicians in front of him and the audience surrounding the stage. Coming next was the suite from Far and Away, now a recurrent pleasant item in Williams’ concert performances despite not being tied with a hugely successful film; the piece offered several soloists in the orchestra a chance to shine, above all Principal Flute Andrea Manco during the segment featuring the love theme for Joseph and Shannon. The composer took the microphone to greet the audience with a lovely “Ladies and Gentlemen, buonasera!” and then expressing the gratitude and the honour to perform in such a prestigious venue with its resident symphony orchestra with his characteristic humbleness and then leading to the performance of three pieces from the Harry Potter series (“Hedwig’s Theme”, “Fawkes the Phoenix”, “Harry’s Wondrous World”), another Williams’ classic that sprinkled musical magic dust in the room leaving the audience dazzled and enchanted. Once again, the composer led the Filarmonica with a light touch, letting the intricate writing of these compositions come through a very delicate, but powerful perfomance where especially the strings section sounded perfectly balanced and resplendant with rich sonorities. While introducing the pieces, Williams noted how the chance of hearing the music without having to watch the film is the best way to admire how crucial the role of the orchestra is for the success of these movies, whose scores often require a level of dexterity and virtuosity from the musicians who plays them, and the Filarmonica della Scala was up to the role despite not being an orchestra specialized in film recordings. The “Theme from Schindler’s List” was the subsequent selection and it was possibly the evening’s highlight: Filarmonica’s concertmaster Francesco De Angelis gave a very impassioned performance of this classic Williams gem, a true staple among violinists around the world (including Anne-Sophie Mutter, who attended the concert in the audience). Williams led the orchestra with a very measured touch, letting the soloist carry the weight of the piece. The 7 or 8 seconds of complete silence at the end of the performance was perhaps the loudest noise of the night and a true moment of magic, followed by a very long applause that Williams, visibly moved, wanted to offer completely to the soloist.
The first half closed with “Adventures of Earth” from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a film and a score that continue to be one of the jewels in the crown of the Steven Spielberg/John Williams collaboration, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. The Filarmonica answered Williams’ call with another shining performance, where Principal Flute Andrea Manco and Principal Horn Danilo Stagni were particularly brilliant.
The second half opened with two pieces from Superman, the stirring “March” and the warmly lyrical (and much less performed) “Love Theme,” aka “Can You Read My Mind.” The former was brilliantly performed, with both brass and percussion sections giving the right edge of exuberance required by the piece, but it was the “Love Theme” that did cast another spell in the audience thanks to a very beautiful and dignified interpretation from the orchestra, where Principal Oboe Armel Descotte and Principal Horn Danilo Stagni gave truly incredible readings of their solos. From one hero to another, three pieces from the Indiana Jones series came up next, introduced by Williams with a fun speech, addressing the audience also about the upcoming fifth movie for which he is now finishing the score. The virtuosic “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” tested the orchestra’s skills in performing Williams’ characteristically intricate action music; the rapturous “Helena’s Theme” from the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny showed a composer that, despite being 90 years old, still got inspiration in spades especially when writing leitmotifs for female characters; the “Raiders March” rounded out the Indiana Jones suite with a merry, cheerful reading by the Filarmonica that sounded almost “Italian”, showing that every orchestra has really different personalities from each other. As tradition wants, it was music from the Star Wars saga that had the honour of closing out the official program: “Princess Leia’s Theme” was a real highlight of the evening, thanks to the incredibly moving horn solo by Danilo Stagni and the flute cadenza beautifully performed by Andrea Manco, while the “Throne Room and Finale” got the audience almost up to their feet. The audience became ecstatic at this point and Maestro Williams offered two encores, once again from Star Wars, “Yoda’s Theme” and the true pièce-de-resistance “The Imperial March”, which brought the opera house down to a literally epic finale.
It’s not easy to offer more thoughts at this point, especially coming after some very positive and elaborate reviews written by finer minds than the one putting together these thoughts, but as the mission of this website and project says, we celebrate the art of Maestro Williams by focusing on why his music keeps bringing countless hours of joy to people and continues to be a source of inspiration for many of them. Seeing John Williams and his music finally recognized in the temples of great art music is not just a satisfaction that feels like a reparation after decades of snobbery and prejudice towards him and the film music repertoire in general. It’s something much more meaningful, profound and, dare I say, even tied to our spiritual life, that goes beyond the success and even the fondness for the films for which this music was written for. Looking at the people in the audience, there were countless starry-eyed faces (including mine) that looked like kids looking at the silver screen and hearing those scores that fueled our imagination for the first time. John Williams’ music can make us feel like kids again and that’s why it speaks to us on an almost visceral level. Now his music, especially the most popular pieces, almost completely transcends the films for which it was written. On the one hand it is true that the images, the characters, the plot, the context, are what ignites the composer’s creativity; on the other hand all the energy, the propulsion, the immense joy that leap off the page and goes into our hearts are the consequence of a man aware of what makes us feel those emotions, but also being himself the first to feel them. Therefore it becomes secondary to know what that music refers to: we understand it, because we feel it. And this happens every time he gets on the podium and starts working with the musicians. As film and music critic Roberto Pugliese noted, John Williams is not only a good conductor, he is a true interpreter who continues to reflect on his music. The gesture, the way he highlights the phrasing and dynamics, the way he looks at the musicians in important moments: on the podium Williams transforms himself into a sort of conduit of energy, where the contact between musicians, conductor and audience produces something that can only be described as magic. That’s what the audience felt at Teatro alla Scala that night and that will linger forever in the memory of all the people who attended this historic concert.
Thanks to Marco Ferullo and the press office of Filarmonica della Scala for the kind help and support; and to Emilio Audissino, Simone Pedroni and Roberto Pugliese for sharing thoughts and reflections.
Official Photos and Videos used under authorization.
John Williams Conducts Filarmonica della Scala
Teatro alla Scala, Milano, Italy
12 December 2022, 20.00h
Flight to Neverland from Hook
Suite from Far and Away
Three Pieces from Harry Potter
-Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
-Fawkes the Phoenix from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
-Harry’s Wondrous World from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Theme from Schindler’s List
Adventures on Earth from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Two Pieces from Superman
Three Pieces from Indiana Jones
-Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
-Helena’s Theme from Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
-The Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark
Two Pieces from Star Wars
-Princess Leia’s Theme from Episode IV: A New Hope
-Throne Room and End Title from Episode IV: A New Hope
Yoda’s Theme from The Empire Strikes Back
The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back