Concert Review: John Williams conducts the San Diego Symphony

January 31, 2018, San Diego, CA
San Diego Symphony Orchestra conducted by JOHN WILLIAMS and Sameer Patel


Sameer Patel conducting

  • A Hymn to New England
  • Suite from Far and Away
  • Out to Sea/The Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws
  • Suite from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Three Million Light Years from Home; Stargazers; Adventures on Earth)


John Williams conducting

  • The Adventures of Mutt from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • A Child’s Tale: Suite from The BFG
  • Three Selections from Harry Potter (The Chamber of Secrets; Nimbus 2000; Harry’s Wondrous World)
  • Theme from Sabrina
  • Three Selections from Star Wars (The Rebellion is Reborn; Rey’s Theme; Main Title)


  • Han Solo and the Princess from The Empire Strikes Back (new arrangement)
  • The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back


Concert review by ‘KingPin’ (original post)

San Diego Symphony Associate Conductor Sameer Patel conducted the first half, which opened with ‘Hymn to New England’. Overall, the orchestra was well-balanced during this piece, although the brass was a little choppy on some of the entrances (slightly-off intonation, cracked notes – things probably less noticeable to an untrained ear but), but an overall decent performance.

Next was the Suite from Far and Away, which was beautifully executed. The flute solo of the Joseph and Shannon love theme was absolutely exquisite, and the faster parts were played with vigor that perfectly captured the Irish setting. The whole concert itself was quite flute-friendly as you will see throughout this review.

‘Out to Sea/Shark Cage Fugue’ followed, and it would have been a flawless performance of the piece had the trumpets not entered a beat early towards the end of the piece. It happened in a section of the music where there was a lot of counterpoint happening in the music, which probably makes it harder to find one’s bearings. It took several seconds for the orchestra to re-align. It was very noticeable, as even my friend who I attended the concert with, who wasn’t familiar with the piece at all, sensed that there was something wrong. As a result, this piece was probably the biggest disappointment of the evening.

Closing the first half was a three-movement suite from E.T. First was ‘Three Million Light Years from Home’, which was my first time hearing this live. I thought it was a fantastic performance of the piece. During the action music portion, the strings played with ferocity and energy. Stargazers was next, and the harp and flute solos were simply sublime. The celeste player missed some notes at the end of the piece though, so there were some awkward empty beats where the celeste is supposed to pick up a portion of the melody from the harp. Ending the set was ‘Adventures on Earth’, which needs little introduction and was flawlessly executed.

John Williams came out to conduct the second half of the concert, opening with a well-played rendition of ‘The Adventures of Mutt’. The timpanist came in a measure early in one spot, but he recovered quickly, and it was less prominent that the trumpet flub in the Jaws cue from earlier because I did a quick double-take when it happened just to be sure.

Williams then got on the microphone and introduced the Suite from BFG, explaining that the flute flurries were meant to represent the chasing of dreams in the movie (which I have never seen). The flute solos were played brilliantly, and the orchestra was in perfect synchronization with the piece. Personally, this was one of the highlights of the evening for me.

Three Harry Potter selections followed. ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ came first. It was well played, but the balance didn’t allow for the fast string triplet figures to carry though very well. The piece sounded more bass and percussion heavy, drowning out some of the other orchestration. Nimbus 2000 for woodwinds was next. Williams’ old age started to show here, as he described the piece as characterizing Harry’s wand rather than his broomstick, and then immediately stated that he couldn’t remember what the wand (broomstick) was called in the film, even though it’s literally the title of the piece! Regardless of his little memory lapse, the piece was played quite well. ‘Harry’s Wondrous World’ rounded out the set, which was well-played.

Sabrina was next, and it was the arrangement for solo violin and orchestra from the ‘Cinema Serenade’ album. The concertmaster, Jeff Thayer, was soloist. Williams initially started with a rushed tempo at the introduction, but promptly brought it back to a statelier, more romantic tempo once the violinist entered. Beautiful playing by the soloist, and easily another highlight of the concert for me.

The program concluded with selections from Star Wars. First up was ‘The Rebellion is Reborn’ from The Last Jedi, which was flawlessly executed. The tempo was slightly faster than on the original soundtrack, but the sound balance I thought was superior in concert. Rey’s Theme followed, and Williams again shared a quick story of his infatuation with Daisy Ridley before starting the piece. Rey’s Theme was played exquisitely, although the only oddity was that Williams added a sustained low brass chord at the end of the piece as the celeste plays its final note. I didn’t feel that the addition of the chord was necessary, as I much prefer the sort of open-endedness that the solo celeste leaves, almost symbolizing the mystery of Rey’s origins. The Main Title from A New Hope rousingly closed the program with usual pomp and pizazz, and it elicited a big applause from the crowd upon hearing the first downbeat.

There were two encores. The first was the new arrangement of ‘Han Solo and the Princess’, which was completely unexpected but a pleasant surprise all the same. Although Williams never specifically alluded to it, I couldn’t help wondering whether revisiting this piece had something to do with the upcoming Han Solo standalone film. As stated previously, this piece bears hardly any resemblance to the original concert version. The original version is more horn and woodwind prominent until the piece hits the climax, whereas this new version very much features the strings section throughout. The cellos are given the theme first, and the theme itself has been heavily modified and developed by Williams. The violins work through some thematic variation, and then the woodwinds take over the theme. The piece continues to build to the climax, at which point it leads into the version heard at the end of the end credits of The Empire Strikes Back, which I think may be the only time in the piece that the theme is heard in its original unadulterated form. As the climax dies down, it leads into a sweet and delicate solo flute cadenza that was another variation of the melody before coming to a gentle close (again, more flute being featured throughout the evening). I sort of view Williams’ approach to this new piece as a combination of the ‘Marion’s Theme’ concert version and the revised concert version of ‘The Face of Pan’: prominently modified from the original concert version, but still with sweeping orchestration that is characteristic of Williams’ current lyrical style.

The second and final encore was ‘The Imperial March’, which was played perfectly and needs no further description.

Despite the orchestra having some trouble spots, it was overall a great evening and well-crafted program, even if everything wasn’t perfect. Though Williams himself looks physically spry on the podium, it is quite evident when he speaks that his age is having an impact and that these types of performances are becoming increasingly exhausting for him. But the audience loved him and gave him a long standing ovation. Fun evening overall.