Philadelphia, July 15, 2003

Three lengthy reviews of the John Williams concert in Philadelphia (July 15):

Mann Center fot the Performing Arts, Philadelphia
Tuesday, July 15, 2003
The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by JOHN WILLIAMS

Concert Review by Ted Pidgeon

I should first say that this concert would mark the third time that I’ve seen John Williams in concert. The two occasions that I have seen him in the past are and forever will be cemented in my mind as two of the most memorable experiences of my life. So I knew going into this concert that it was going to probably be among the other two concerts as wonderful experience that I would remember for a long time, and though I was right in that assumption, seeing him take the podium tonight was like seeing him for the first time. I had that indescribable awstruck feeling as he prominently walked to the podium with his baton in hand ready to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra.

With a swift motion of the arms, the Orchestra burst into action with theLiberty Fanfare, which was crisply played by both the strings and the brass. It seemed to carry more emotion and energy than the times that I have heard this theme in the past. It was a good way to start the concert. After that, next o­n the lineup was the nine minute overture to The Cowboys, which again was well played by the Orchestra. During this performance, Williams did a little bit of dancing o­n the podium during a few moments, which was great to see.

After these pieces, Williams took the microphone and gave a little introduction to his next piece, which was the three movement suite from JFK. He talked about how he went about composing the music and what the contex of it was. The performance of this suite was superb to say the least. The trumpet and strings were great in playing the main theme and the Motorcade built with frantic energy to a climax of silence, followed by the solemn trumpet solo that began the beautiful last movement, Arlington.

Next was E.T., which Williams talked about before the performance by mentioning where the music took the place and the nature of it, which is always neat ot hear about. The performance of Adventures o­n Earth was everything it should have been, and I could tell because I felt my heart beating at the end of it. It struck me emotionally, as if I was watching the film. That’s how well the orchestra played this music.

After the break were two solid performances, Flight to Neverland from Hookand what was basically the end credits suite from Far and Away, the latter of which I thought was a true standout given the nature of the music that is encompassed in such a short time and how well the orchestra adapted to the changes.

Williams then took the microphone again and discussed his good fortune over coming across the Harry Potter films and how he felt so lucky to be able to compose the music for it. He then introduced his suite by mentioning all the themes and what they represented, Hedwig’s Theme, Fawkes the Phoenix, Nimbus 2000, and Harry’s Wondrous World. The first two were given wonderful performances by the orchestra – every little detail was present in both of these themes, which is important in capturing the magic of these rich themes. Then the woodiwinds section took over for Nimbus 2000, a quircky little collection of the main themes played solely by the woodwinds section. He then capped off the Potter music with a performance of Harry’s Wondrous World.

He then took the microphone o­nce more to talk about his collaboration with Steven Spielberg. he then talked about the first time he saw Schindler’s Listand gave a lot fo detail over how moved he was and told the auidience the joke of him telling Spielberg that he needed a better composer, to which the audience loved Spielberg’s “I know but they’re all dead,” response. But things quieted down quickly when the orchestra softly played in support of William De Pasqualle’s violin solo of the main theme. This was the emotional climax of the night as the solo was flawlessly and movingly played.

And what better way to follow Schindler’s List than with Star Wars. The audience bursted into appluse when the surge of brass filled the pavilion and the orchestra vigorously played the famous Star Wars main title with feverish energy. After this performance, Williams and the orchestra received a standing ovation.

For the encores, Williams conducted the Raiders March and the Mission theme, both of which received applause at the time of recognition and a standing ovation at the end. By the time the concert had ended, it was clear to me that the audience had genuinely embraced Williams, and it appeared as though he was deeply moved by such an enthusiastic reception from the audience.

Overall, it was a great concert and a memorable evening. The program was stellar and diverse, giving the audience a mix of the recognizable and lesser known music. Thought it is now o­nly a memory, it is o­ne that I will likely remember for years and years to come.


Concert Review by Jack H. Lee

This was my third Williams concert this year, or 3.25, if I count his guest appearance o­n the 4th of July in DC….

I loved hearing The Cowboys Overture and Liberty Fanfare, which I heard him conduct o­nce previously back in 1989. But back then, I didn’t appreciate those particular pieces as much as I do now. So I was paying attention to every nuance and instrument. It came out very nice.

He seemed to do a “themed” based program. The first three pieces were about America: American symbolism (State of Liberty), Americana (The Cowboys), and an American tragedy (JFK).

The suite from JFK needs some work, but I’m not referring to this particular performance. I heard it o­nce before when Leonard Slatkin conducted it, and it seemed to have the same problem. The solo trumpet part was a little fast and there was not enough “oomph” in the percussion section. It’s a great arrangement nonetheless.

The Harry Potter suite was….well, sweeeeet!

He repeated a lot of the same jokes and anecdotes before introducting certain pieces, but since many people were hearing them for the first time, it was funny to them, but didn’t do much for me. I met up with Neil (our forum moderator) and his family before the concert and joked to him about Williams about doing the NBC Theme for encore and talking about how the concert was running late and people would miss the news, so he would fill their need with the music. (He did the same joke at the January 23 DC concert). And he’s repeated the Schindler’s List joke (about all the good composers being dead) ten years now.

Of the “Theme from Schindler’s List” performance, it was fine. But because this concert was more informal, the violinist sat in his chair and played the music off his sheet music. I thought urit Bar-Josef (the concertmaster for the National Symphony Orchestra and a major babe) did a more beautifil and emotional rendition. She performed the music from memory and standing, with her eyes closed.

Wish Williams had done a trifecta of his heroes music. After Star Wars andThe Raiders March, he should’ve done Superman! But no, he decides to make Tom Brokaw a superhero instead. (This was a joke brought up from the DC concert.)

I thought the fireworks they presented at the end were more interesting than the o­nes I saw in DC a couple weeks ago. (It was too much same old, same old and lackluster than in previous years.)

Saw waiting limousine outside after the show, presumably waiting for Williams. I saw a mini cooler inside and figured they contained his favorite bottled water (which he always seems to have with him)

Concert Review by ‘Figo’

Allow me to poke my nose in briefly to mention that I too attended last night?s concert, and was mostly pleased with the results. To start with, the program was dynamite, including personal favorites like The Cowboys and Far and Away. Extraordinarily well-thought out, with selections varied enough from their immediate neighbors so as to provide maximum enjoyment and not tire the ear with two hours-worth of ?Jurassic Park?-type overkill.

On the plus side, Liberty Fanfare and ?The Cowboys,? which opened the concert with an impressive o­ne-two punch were enormously well-done, every bit as stunning as the Pops recordings, although, as the other selections would eventually bear out, the Philadelphia Orchestra makes the Pops sound like a mere pit band. They played like gods, and it helped to disguise notable deficiencies like the absence of the Chieftains in ?Far and Away,? an omission that simply would not do, had it been issued o­n a Pops record.

And while we?re o­n the topic of concert arrangements, will someone please take the truncated version of ?Adventures o­n Earth? and consign it to the shredder? E.T. is arguably Williams? greatest score, and I?m not telling anyone anything they don?t already know when I say that AOE provides the emotional climax. I have never, ever, EVER gotten used to the concert arrangement, which inexplicably GUTS the orgasmic release of the flying sequence, instead leaping from the menace of the (for me, always gun-wielding) checkpoint Feds directly to the descent of the mothership! I don?t generally mind this sort of thing o­n soundtrack albums, but then the most important part of the score is generally not mutilated. Just play it as it?s heard in the original, John! It?s perfect!

Anyway, ?E.T.? concluded the first half, and I?m happy to report the audience was suitably appreciative. In fact, Williams was greeted with whistles, applause and shrieks of ecstasy all evening. I wonder what the musicians of the orchestra, who are accustomed to a more restrained crowd, thought of it? I was pleasantly surprised to see many of them tapping their bows o­n the music stands at the end of the concert, a show of respect, and by no means common! Even if they all happened to detect influences and near-quotations that would fly right over the heads of many soundtrack collectors (such as the homage to Grainger?s ?Molly o­n the Shore? in ?Far and Away?), it has to be a thrill to be able to say you actually had a chance to swashbuckle with Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones.

So, the concert opened with ?The Liberty Fanfare? and ?The Cowboys,? and the first half concluded with ?E.T.? In between came ?J.F.K.,? which was a nice contrast, since the music had a more haunted quality (and suitably so). I?ve always admired the score, in the film and o­n disc, but I can?t really pass definitive judgement o­n the suite without revisiting the soundtrack and without hearing the concert version a second time. The wonderful theme was there, in abundance, as were the sinister snares and elegiac strings.

Following intermission (and a much-needed gasp of air, out from beneath that stifling pavillion!) , Williams launched into the ?Flight to Neverland? from Hook, which is another guilty pleasure (the score, not the film). It made me realize I hadn?t listened to the soundtrack for far too long. If there were any changes to the concert arrangement, I wouldn?t have caught them. I?ve already commented o­n ?Far and Away,? which followed. That score really deserves to be better-known. And then came selections from the Harry Potter films, all well-done. It was particularly delightful to be able to focus o­n the wind section in ?Nimbus 2000.? Which reminds me, watching the Grainger-inspired portion of ?F&A? was instructive, as the rhythmic layers built from the basses and cellos to the violas, before the entrance of the entire of the orchestra. This is the kind of detail which is often lost, when simply listening to a recording.

Then came Schindler?s List, with a wonderful contribution by William de Pasquale (whose name I always thought was pronounced in Italianate fashion, but which Williams Anglicized ? who knows, though, he may be right). I?ve known Pasquale?s playing for years. He?s part of a very highly-regarded family of string-players. (His brother, violist Joseph, made some classic recordings of Berlioz?s ?Harold in Italy,? and with the remaining brothers formed a notable string quartet. All of them held positions in the orchestra, at o­ne time or another.) Pasquale suffers from chronic and, at times, disabling back pain. I heard him solo in an incredible performance of Bernstein?s ?Serenade? with the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music, but he o­nly just about made it through Bruch?s ?Scottish Fantasy? when he soloed with the Philadelphia, a year or two later. Last night, he was ?on,? although he played from a seated position, in the role of concert master. For his efforts, he received a standing ?o.?

Before the piece, Williams shared an amusing anecdote about the first time Spielberg had shown him ?Schindler.? He said he had to leave the room, he was so moved, and when he returned he said, ?Steven, this film really deserves a better composer.? To which Spielberg replied, ?I know — but they?re all dead.?

Immediately following, the orchestra launched into the Star Wars main title, complete with Rebel Alliance music in the coda, as has been the case now for many years. The audience knew a good thing when they heard it, and roared their approval at the opening tutti. In fact, this was the best performance of the main title I?ve heard outside of the original soundtracks. Another example of how the Philadelphia has it all over the Pops and (*gag*) the Skywalker Symphony.

At several points during the evening, Williams seemed to play a little fast-and-loose with the facts. Not that things like precise dates are of any import. But the loosest of observances was made preceding the first encore, when he introduced The Raiders March as being from ?Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.? It featured Marion?s theme as the ?b? section (thank goodness), so obviously Williams was getting his billion-dollar Indy scores crossed. The fans didn?t care. It was greeted with another roar of approval. (Ideally, the march could have dealt with a bit more swagger.)

I should mention at the end of the published program (that is to say, following ?Star Wars?) most of the audience was o­n its feet. A very gratifying reception for the maestro, more like the adulation showered o­n rock stars than your average classical conductor. The thunderous ovation was repeated following ?Raiders.?

Then came Williams usual coy remark about ?should you be caught in traffic and miss the evening news,? and a fine rendering of the soaring NBC News theme. The audience showed no sign of fatigue, but Williams himself gave the ?beddy-bye? gesture and finally led de Pasquale off the stage by hand. The orchestra followed, but o­nly after Williams graciously singled out each of the various sections for praise, as he had done time and again throughout the course of the evening. Some of us in the audience were disappointed there was not a third encore, and I wonder how much of it had to do with the two-hour time limit imposed by the orchestra?s union.

Since SEEING the concert was at least as important to me as hearing the music live, I should make note of Williams? conducting style, which seemed to shift erratically between discernable beats, a very subjective and romantic approach, and not o­ne I?d want to have to follow as a musician! At the same time, he was very fluid, mostly urging the musicians o­n, rather than having them linger at the ends of phrases (as I would have done). Perhaps this was a result of conducting some of this music probably thousands of times? Most conductors, as they get older, tend to fall into a more reflective style. Everything tends to get drawn out, o­n occasion becoming less revelatory than leaden. Williams is the opposite. The often Dionysian beats were countered by an almost-Apollonian restraint in interpretation. It made me want to see him conduct someone else?s music, to see what he might do with it. (I am not a fan of his recording of ?The Planets.? Perhaps to see it live?)

All in all, a fine concert, followed by a superfluous and (to me) anti-climactic fireworks display. The Mann Center seems enticing in theory, but I have to say the parking situation is lame, cars orange-flagged o­nto grassy knolls, fairground style — in some instances hundreds of yards from the actual venue — with no landmarks to help you locate your vehicle following the concert (if indeed it’s still there ? Fairmount Park is situated in o­ne of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia). All this, for $7.00. And as I intimated earlier, sitting under the pavillion, I felt like a migrant worker being herded into a boxcar. Furthermore, the concerts are amplified, and being so close to the action, the speakers create an unnecessary distraction, actually serving to muddy up the sound. Ordinarily, lawn seating or the tried-and-true beach blanket picnic are good enough for me. Great music and a bottle of wine under the stars. But to see John Williams up close and doing his thing ? well, for me, it may have been a o­nce-in-a-lifetime event.

You can read more reviews and reports of the Philadelphia concert

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