It’s been almost two decades since I sat under the stars and watched John Williams conduct. Nineteen years ago, I was with my parents at Tanglewood, an outdoor venue in Upstate New York where the Boston Pops are artists-in-residence during the summer months. We packed our picnic and set our blanket on the lawn, waiting for John Williams, one of my personal heroes to conduct the Pops in some of his most famous movie scores.
On that night, there was no “Star Wars” on the program and my disappointment was palpable. I had recently rediscovered my love for George Lucas’ space opera and was dying to hear those familiar strains live. Even through three encores, he didn’t play the fanfare or the theme or even the Imperial March. It was a good concert, but I left with my shoulders sagging just a bit.
On Friday, September 4th, I traveled to the Hollywood Bowl (and I mean, traveled. Do you know how much of a pain it is to get there?) to see John Williams conduct once more. This time he would lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a night of movie music. I was sitting under the stars once more, waiting for the show to begin. A quick glance at the program revealed no planned “Star Wars” music again. I wondered if fate was playing some cruel joke.
My mounting disappointment aside, the program was pretty Williams heavy with the first half consisting entirely of “Harry Potter” music. Some of his most recent work, the “Harry Potter” motifs are quickly becoming as recognizable as the themes to Indiana Jones and Superman. There were quite a few kids in the audience as well and I knew they’d appreciate hearing those tunes.
For the second half, the selections were a mix of his newer and older stuff, along with a salute to some of the older cinema composers. The medley played at the top of the half was accompanied with a clip package shown on the big screens and I was proud to realize there were only three scenes I didn’t recognize. I did, however, recognize all the songs. Williams’ 30+ year collaboration with Steven Spielberg has given us some great themes, most notably “E.T.,” “Jaws,” and “Jurassic Park.” It also has brought out Williams’ jazzy side, which the soundtrack to “Catch Me If You Can.” Bringing out a jazz trio (alto sax, bass and xylophone), Williams showcased a few of the pieces on this soundtrack. It was understated, moody and invoked the 1960s in a second. My favorite part was listening to the bass solo as I always think basses sound almost like they’re talking when played by hand (sans bow). You can almost imagine the conversation, can hear the intonation as the player picks away.
Closing with the “Superman” theme, the packed audience at the Hollywood Bowl got to its feet and cheered John Williams long and loud. Emerging for an encore, he let the crowd know “this is for our 700-year-old friend Yoda,” which inspired wild cheering. It also set the hillside awash in red, green, purple and blue lights as everyone who had brought a lightsaber to the concert raised them high and waved them in the air. Playing “Yoda’s Theme,” one of the most enduring pieces from “The Empire Strikes Back,” I finally had my “Star Wars” moment. I was happy. Life was good.
Finishing his salute to the little green guy, Williams immediately signaled the group to start the next encore which was the “Star Wars” theme! That got the biggest cheer of the night, including my own. I threw my hands in the air and gave a little shout. It was awesome! Top that off with “The Flying Theme” from E.T. and “The Imperial March,” from The Empire Strikes Back and it was the perfect night.
John Williams holds a record number of Oscar wins for film scores and, at 77, is still hard at work bringing us themes we’ll remember forever. In truth, I can chart a good portion of my life set to his music: “Star Wars” & “E.T” when I was little, “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” in my teens, “Harry Potter” and “Minority Report” in recent years. He’s the artist with the most songs on my iPod; the guy whose tunes I’ll go to again and again because not only did they underscore some great movies, but also illustrated the beauty of truly excellent music composition. He’s my Aerosmith, Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones. Because, just like those groups, he’s a legend.