For three nights at the beginning of September, the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented a concert titled “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies” at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California. FANgirl attended on Friday, September 1, as part of group seating arranged by Tricia Barr’s co-host on Fangirls Going Rogue, Sarah Woloski, for listeners of her other podcast, Skywalking Through Neverland. Despite the unseasonably warm weather and a massive brushfire in nearby Burbank, the concert was an unforgettable experience.
To reduce the burden on Williams, the concert began with five pieces under the baton of conductor and film composer David Newman, a lifelong friend. As Williams later explained onstage, David’s father Alfred Newman was an acclaimed film composer from the 1930s through the 1960s, and John Williams was for a time a violinist in his orchestra; decades later, David Newman was a violinist for Williams before embarking on his own illustrious composing career in the mid-1980s. (David’s cousin Randy Newman also is a well-known film composer and songwriter.) More than that, Williams praised Newman as the greatest expert on the history of film music he has ever known.
Newman’s selections centered on a historical notion he explained after the first piece: that the core principles of composition for film were in large part created in the 1930s through the work of the founders of the art form. That first piece, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1938 “March from The Adventures of Robin Hood,” would fit right in among an action-adventure film score today. Newman then introduced three pieces he holds in high regard from 20th century film music: “Cathy’s Theme” from Wuthering Heights (1939) by Alfred Newman, selections from Dr. Zhivago (1965) by Maurice Jarre, and “Night Journeys” from Dracula (1979) by John Williams. Listening to the pieces was fascinating because if Newman had not already identified which was which, and their respective years, it would have been nearly impossible to guess their chronological order. Newman concluded his portion of the concert by conducting the orchestral accompaniment to Judy Garland’s vocals for “Born in a Trunk” from A Star is Born (1954), a melancholy ballad far different from her brighter performances in The Wizard of Oz.
After intermission John Williams, attired in his trademark black turtleneck notwithstanding the heat, took the stage to conduct a mix of some of his most famous classics and a few of his less well-known but personal favorites. The former category included the themes from Superman, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is also celebrating its fortieth anniversary of release this year, as well as the more recent “Harry’s Wondrous World” and The Chamber of Secrets from the Harry Potter franchise. In the latter category, Williams began his set with “The Adventures of Mutt” from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which earned applause of recognition when the iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark theme was briefly quoted. His other personal picks were his theme for Sabrina (1995) and “Aunt Marge’s Waltz,” a goofier composition from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
By far the most unique performance of the night was also the most unexpected. Microphone in hand, Williams explained his surprise at being asked by basketball superstar Kobe Bryant to compose the music for the animated short film, with hand-drawn art by the legendary Glen Keane, created from Bryant’s poem “Dear Basketball” published in The Player’s Tribune to announce his decision to retire. Even Williams’ admission to having never attended any basketball game in his life had not deterred Bryant from wanting to work with him, and so their partnership was sealed. Williams then invited Bryant onstage to thunderous cheers from the many L.A. Lakers fans in attendance. Williams conducted the orchestra while Bryant narrated his poem live and the animation played on the screens above the stage. The performance was powerful and moving, yet it was equally clear that Bryant was giddy to get to appear onstage with a musical idol. Noting the star power involved, The Hollywood Reporter deemed “Dear Basketball” a legitimate Oscar contender for Best Animated Short Film.
The movie magic of John Williams could not be complete without Star Wars, of course, and he included four selections from his epic work in the saga for this year’s concert. After joking that Disney would not allow him to perform his new music from The Last Jedi, he conducted two favorites from The Force Awakens. The first, “Scherzo for X-Wings,” seemed to be another choice he had made based on his enjoyment in doing the composing. The second, “Rey’s Theme,” came accompanied by his unabashed affirmation of his fondness for the character. The other Star Wars selections drew from the Original Trilogy: “The Throne Room and End Titles” from A New Hope and the “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back. As expected, hundreds of fans in the audience illuminated their lightsabers during the Star Wars performances; unexpectedly, members of the orchestra brought lightsabers, too, and saluted Williams with them while the audience applauded.
Adding to the Star Wars magic of the evening, fans could supplement the experience with the Find the Force augmented reality feature in the Star Wars app. In addition to standees in numerous retail establishments, including at Disneyland, which could be scanned to activate AR characters, twenty iconic locations around the world were geotagged in the app to unlock another AR visual: a First Order Star Destroyer in the sky, with TIE fighters on patrol beneath it. One of these landmarks was the hilltop Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. Due to its proximity to the sign, fans seated in the Hollywood Bowl could activate the AR effect and snap screenshots of the Star Destroyer hovering over the venue.
The concert was a night to remember for fans of all ages, with perhaps a bit of extra nostalgia for those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s to the soundtracks of John Williams. If his admiration for Rey and the bounce in his voice talking about The Last Jedi is any indication, though, we’re all in for another musical masterpiece when Episode VIII hits theaters in December.