Note: It’s taken me a while to get this written due to other work commitments but, given that it is the maestro’s 85th birthday, it seemed fitting to get this review up!

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Memories

Just like many children of the 80s and 90s, I look back very fondly on the movies of those halcyon days; particularly the films from the stable of the great Steven Spielberg. My 2 older brothers undoubtedly helped nurture this love of films; E.T., Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List….we had copies of these around the house on videotape and I vividly remember many a Christmas spent watching the classics on TV. Home Alone was a personal favourite of mine as a child, and Williams’ “Somewhere in My Memory” always sticks in my mind over the festive season.

Williams has always seemed to get away with incorporating grandiose themes and sweeping romantic harmony from the golden era of film scoring

As a young pianist and violinist, I enjoyed the music of many film composers but especially liked the way that the maestro John Williams managed to meld both on-screen and implied emotion into his melodies and orchestrations.

Williams has also always seemed to get away with incorporating grandiose themes and sweeping romantic harmony from the golden era of film scoring (e.g. Hermann, Korngold and the like), and has a knack of updating such ideas for a new generation to enjoy.

Whilst other composers look to technology and hybrid scoring techniques (e.g. Hans Zimmer, James Newton-Howard), John Williams sticks stylistically to music more reminiscent of the romantic era, without descending into the territory of “cheesiness”, in my opinion.

Bucket List

I promised myself, then, that I would jump at the opportunity to see John Williams conduct live, and concocted a plan to fly to Boston from London to take in the “John Williams Film Night” at Tanglewood.

I realised that, although apparently remarkably spritely and healthy, the then 84 year old John Williams may succumb to the curse of 2016 that had taken so many stars of music, film and beyond.

Williams is the laureate conductor of the Boston Pops (predominantly made up of members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Every year the BSO decamp to Tanglewood, a beautiful, sprawling countryside campus in the Berkshires with a rich history of musical performance and education.

An annual fixture of the Tanglewood festival is the “John Williams Film Night”. Unfortunately, due to health concerns, Williams had to cancel his planned appearance in 2015 but thankfully this was to be just a one year break.

I realised that, although apparently remarkably spritely and healthy, the then 84 year old John Williams may succumb to the curse of 2016 that had taken so many stars of music, film and beyond.

The decision was made to integrate a visit to Boston and The Berkshires into a more general holiday to New York City, one of my favourite cities in the world.

Overall it was an amazing holiday, I’ve always loved NYC but this was my first visit to Boston and I was very impressed. A clean, beautiful city with a great deal of history (which, as a Brit, is particularly relevant – especially concerning the Boston Tea Party!)

Having hired a car at Boston Logan Airport, we made the journey east to the Berkshires. A few hundred miles of pretty uneventful driving later (only punctuated by a brief Starbucks stop), we reached our hotel – The Berkshire Mountain Lodge. This amazing building felt like the hotel from The Shining in some respects (with a cosy rather than horrific vibe, I should add!). A large, rambling building standing seperately on a hill outside Pittsfield.

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We had a suite with living room, kitchen and sizeable bedroom…quite something!

The weather was frankly bizarre….one minute bright, hot sunshine and the next, dark foreboding stormy skies.

After a little shopping at the designer stores of Lee Premium Outlets (heartily recommended for any visitors to the area), it was time to make the journey to Tanglewood – Summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Settling In

THOUSANDS had turned up with picnic hampers, blankets, umbrellas and more to grab a space on the sprawling lawns and hear the music eminate from within the hall. We were very lucky to have cover, given the storm that was set to come!

To say that Tanglewood campus was busy would be an understatement; we had managed to grab seats at the front of the Koussevitzky music shed for the concert (the shed isn’t raked seating, so important to be as close to the stage as possible; there are large video screens, but not quite giving the same ‘live viewing’ experience.)

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Parking was easier than I had envisaged; the police operated a one way system allowing more traffic to flow freely onto the site, but the queue to get into Tanglewood itself was rather long; it took about an hour or so to get onto the campus.

We bought a few gifts and mementos from the gift shop before settling down to read the programme with an ice cream and chilled white wine.

360 degree image of a busy tanglewood below…click play and drag to look around! Thanks to Samsung and WordPress for the 360 VR tools

The first half was conducted by Richard Kaufmann, with the second half to be conducted by Williams himself.

The programme for the first half was excellent and based around a theme of ‘flight in the movies’. This (of course) included many great John Williams scores (E.T., Hook, and Superman) alongside the great John Barry “Out of Africa” theme and a selection of older Hollywood classics as a medley. I wasn’t quite so familiar with some of these other themes, and so were fun to take in.

Up, Up and Away: The Movies Take Flight

Hooray For Hollywood

Arranged by Williams, this medley was a nod to the golden age of Hollywood cinema; plenty of classic themes could be identified woven in here including “No Business Like Showbusiness” and “Wanna Dance”. The Brass section really shone here with a bit of a Big Band lilt!

Flight to Neverland (Hook)

Perhaps one of the best aspects of the movie Hook, which proved not to be a critical success, was the score. Flight to Neverland is a soaring, optimistic theme about the innocence and experience of childhood to match the adventures of Peter Pan.

Ireland (Spirit of St Louis)

Flight Over Africa (Out of Africa)

The great English composer John Barry is another of my favourites and so it was a thrill to hear the orchestra play the theme from Out of Africa. Not the most well received movie critically, but an absolutely brilliant romantic string theme performed brilliantly by the Boston Pops.

March (The Great Waldo Pepper)

Flying Theme (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial)

Perhaps one of John Williams’ finest scores and the final 15 minutes of the filmscore are – for me – the best ever composed for film. The story goes that Williams was having t3rouble synching the orchestra to the film; Spielberg told the composer to just have the orchestra play the music organically without picture so that the director would recut the film to fit the music. The result is sublime.
The conductor, Richard Kaufmann, had played violin on several of John Williams’ soundtracks (including Jaws) but admitted that E.T. was the one score he wished he had played on.

A soaring, emotional melody that never seems to get old. Brilliant.

Love Theme (Superman)

Another great Romantic melody from the composer, with a great performance again. Thankfully this was not the now fairly naff sounding “Can You Read My Mind” vocal version from the 1970s 😉
Superman March (Superman)

Not much to be said other than….definitely the best Superman theme. Sorry Hans. 😉

Flight and Technology (American Journey)

As expected, the sound that the Boston Pops made was truly spectacular. The ambience of the Shed was also fairly good, and overall the pieces sounded at times as though they were from a polished recording rather than a live performance.
There was a real sense of anticipation in the audience at half-time for the arrival of John Williams to the podium. It was at this point, however, that a huge lightning storm began outside, causing the thousands that had amassed on the lawns outside to run for cover in the auditorium.

As the interval continued on for 45 minutes, I was becoming increasingly worried that I had flown thousands of miles for no reason. Thankfully, the storm subsided, the crowds returned to their picnics and the maestro finally made his way to the stage. The audience went crazy, whooping and cheering, and a wave of relief swept the hall.

360 degree image of the stormy interval below…click play and drag to look around! Thanks to Samsung and WordPress for the 360 VR tools

Olympic Fanfare and Theme

I’ve always loved this piece, composed originally for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. A fabulous fanfare with uplifting melody, the big screens accompanied the music with some images of great Olympians of the past and present (including Great Britain’s Mo Farah!).

Generally well played, although there was a fairly obvious tempo acceleration towards the start as Williams pushed the orchestra in order to sync with the images and video on-screen.

Song For World Peace

A fine piece of music, I’ve always admired the way this builds dynamically from a very quiet beginning to a proud, optimistic and rousing finale. Concert master Tamara Smirnova performed a beautiful violin solo and was singled out for an ovation by Williams at the conclusion of the piece.

May The Force be With You: The Music of “Star Wars”

The Jedi Steps and Finale

The Asteroid Field

Princess Leia’s Theme

The Imperial March

Rey’s Theme

Throne Room & Finale

The obligitary Star Wars section was preceded by an introduction from Williams, first of all chuckling about the weather and mentioning how he wished (as a Californian) they could have just half an hour of that rain in LA! The composer then went on to confirm that he is to compose the score for Star Wars Episode 8 as he “doesn’t want anyone else to compose music for Daisy Ridley” (!)

Encore(s)

Luke and Leia’s Theme (From Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)

Impeccably performed, another one of those sweeping romantic french horn themes of which John Williams is a master. Great key change in this piece, highly emotional, and a beautiful solo flute ending. Excellent stuff.
View and listen to a clip I recorded on video below

Harry Potter (Hedwig’s Theme)

Perhaps one of the composer’s most recognized scores of recent times, Harry Potter is a fine score with many of the jazz influences of John Williams early upbringing as a jazz pianist and his time at Julliard. It always tends to remind me in places of the theme from “Catch Me if You Can” – another of the maestro’s works.

I felt that this performance was perhaps the finest of the night! You could tell the orchestra loved playing all the fast passages of strings, the celeste was right on point for the main theme, and the fanfare brass really hit the right spots.

And so, a truly fantastic evening came to a close. A great concert, perfect company with my other half Amber, and some wonderful music….with rather dramatic weather! A great start to our American adventure.

Derek Gibbons

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