Front Row Seat: John Williams tribute becomes DSSO's first sellout in 7 years
Symphony Hall rang with brass as the orchestra played themes from "Star Wars," "Jurassic Park," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and more classics scored by the film legend.
DULUTH — Roll over, Beethoven. On Saturday, the most popular living composer of orchestral music gave the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra its first Symphony Hall sellout since 2016.
John Williams, still working at 91, is the composer whose work made such a splash that it secured the primacy of the symphony orchestra in film scores for generations. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came out of an experimental-minded generation of filmmakers, but starting in the 1970s they decided to reach back to the breathless screen adventures of their youth. In so doing, they defined the summer blockbuster.
Williams was their most crucial collaborator, producing iconic themes that evoked the sweep and grandeur the directors were reaching for. The pivotal nature of his work is all the more obvious decades on, after successive waves of sequels and reboots. You might be watching an overstuffed "Jurassic World" movie or side-eyeing an ad for a Harry Potter video game launched amid controversy, but as soon as you hear the "Jurassic Park" theme or the tinkle of "Hedwig's Theme" on the celesta, your heart remembers why you first fell in love with those franchises.
DSSO music director Dirk Meyer conducted the program, which found the orchestra in strong form and featured opportunities for several individual members to demonstrate their considerable talents as featured players. Any John Williams concert is going to require yeoman work from the brass section in particular, and I hope the horn players all got to spend Sunday zonked out on their respective couches.
Saturday's program began, aptly, with the march from "Superman." Richard Donner's 1978 feature doesn't have the searing intensity of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy or the multiverse-spanning ambition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it has Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, a glowing Marlon Brando and composer John Williams. In this age of infinite comic book movies, has anyone ever written a better superhero theme?
The program proceeded to themes from "Jurassic Park" (1993) and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), the latter of which reminded me of the countless hours I spent during my Duluth childhood playing Atari's "E.T." If hearing a musical theme rendered over and over in 8-bit digital form while you're playing one of the worst video games of all time doesn't ruin it for you, surely nothing can.
The orchestra mixed it up with a suite based on the score for "Catch Me If You Can" (2002). Saxophonist Gregory Kehl Moore, vibraphonist Henry Eichman and bassist Vincent Osborn stepped out to form a jazz trio for the breezy selections. While the music was a welcome reminder of the composer's range, it was also a reminder that for all his gifts, John Williams is no Henry Mancini.
Mancini's "Pink Panther" score did make a cameo, as part of "Tribute to the Film Composer." That Williams-arranged medley, originally created for the 2002 Oscars, opened the evening's second half after the first half closed with two "Harry Potter" pieces. (Meyer introduced those selections with an ill-timed tribute to the pluck and talent of author J.K. Rowling.)
Concertmaster Erin Aldridge stepped forward for a further demonstration of the composer's skills as an arranger: "Tango (Por una cabeza)," a Carlos Gardel song. The song featured in "Scent of a Woman" (1992); Williams later arranged it for his 1997 Itzhak Perlman collaboration, the album "Cinema Serenade."
Perlman was also the soloist in the score Williams penned for "Schindler's List" (1993). Cellist Betsy Husby took the lead in the DSSO's sensitive performance of the theme from that film. It's often mentioned that Steven Spielberg released both that movie and "Jurassic Park" in the same year; what's also true is that Williams scored both films. The fact that Hollywood's favorite composer for goofy action spectacles can also evoke the pathos and tragedy of the Holocaust is a stunning testament to his range and sensitivity.
Before closing with the greatest hits, the DSSO took another detour — into 1972, years before "Jaws" (1975) made Williams a household name. Introducing the overture to "The Cowboys" (1972), Meyer deadpanned that "there's maybe a little bit of Copland in there." Indeed, Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" ballet music was a clear influence on the score Williams wrote for the John Wayne vehicle. The music frolics suitably, but it also shows the importance of the lesson the composer would soon learn.
Williams has described the amount of time and care he puts into the seemingly simple figures that power his scores. "His themes sound inevitable," film score journalist Lukas Kendall told NPR. "They sound like they fell out of his sleeves; they sound like they've always existed."
The composer brought not one but two themes to Spielberg for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), asking which he'd prefer. Spielberg, wisely, took both, meaning the "Raiders March" the DSSO played was stacked with distinctive peals from the hard-working brass around every corner. (Next up for Williams: scoring this summer's "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.")
Speaking of stacked, the DSSO was supplemented with players from the orchestra's Youth Symphony for a suite of music from the original "Star Wars" trilogy to close out the night. "It really means a lot to us to play to a full house," said Meyer. It was never fuller than when the stage was stuffed with the equivalent of two orchestras playing the composer's masterwork.
Though Williams doesn't keep the kind of pace he did in the last decades of the 20th century, when it was not unusual for him to score four features a year, he's still moving so quickly that he's outpaced his own biography. The DSSO program has Williams composing the scores for "all seven 'Star Wars' films." In fact, his count is now nine, plus bonus tracks like a recent theme for the character Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Unless Bob Dylan comes back for a sit-down in the city of his birth or Beyonce decides to slip the DNT a tip about her next project, John Williams may remain the most awe-inspiring artist I've ever interviewed. I was able to speak with him by phone in 2017, for program notes accompanying the New York Philharmonic's performances of the "Star Wars" scores.
"George Lucas created something that seems to be timeless," Williams said in that interview. "Darth Vader, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker are very much still with us, and will continue to be for decades to come." The same could be said about the music Williams wrote for them, and for so many other beloved cinematic characters.
This article was updated at 1 p.m. March 2 to correct a misspelling, in one instance, of Dirk Meyer's name. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. March 2. The News Tribune regrets the error.