Even in a heat wave, there’s nothing quite like hearing the “Maestro of the Movies,” John Williams, conduct his classic film scores live under the stars.
Over Labor Day weekend, I had the great thrill of attending one of Williams’ annual shows at the Hollywood Bowl. The open-air venue is beautiful, a white, half-dome-like structure for the performers nestled against the Hollywood Hills and seats for the audience extending up, up, up amongst the trees. The grounds are hilly and twisting and fascinating on their own, though maneuvering around on a night with a packed house was challenging. It was also the tail end of a week-long heat wave in Los Angeles, with temps topping the 100's each day, and on the evening of the concert, it was a stifling 90 degrees at 8:00 p.m.
As the show started, the first portion did not feature Williams at all, save for a selection of his score from 1979’s Dracula. David Newman, composer for such varied films as Jingle All the Way, Serenity, and this year’s Girls Trip, first led the LA Philharmonic in a “best of” retrospective of film scores, including pieces from Dr. Zhivago and A Star Is Born. Film clips played on three large projector screens during those scores, and it was fascinating to get lost in the film as the live orchestra performed. Newman, son of prolific film composer Alfred Newman (All About Eve, South Pacific, The King and I), spoke in between pieces about the origins of film scoring and its development over time in cinema.
Following a short intermission (and a kid in the row ahead of us projectile vomiting on the row ahead of him!), John Williams took to the stage, and soon notes from Indiana Jones floated out over the crowd. Williams led the orchestra in selections from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sabrina (highlighting violinist Bing Wang), and the Harry Potter films, and surprise guest Kobe Bryant joined him on stage to recite Bryant’s new poem and animated short, “Dear Basketball,” for which Williams composed the music.
When the orchestra played the main theme and “Imperial March” from Star Wars, the audience turned into a sea of light sabers, “conducting” the score along with Williams, who seemed delighted at the enthusiasm. In between pieces at various points, he spoke to the crowd about some of his work and even shared his excitement at composing the music for the newest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi (due out in December): “When [director Rian Johnson] asked me if I would do the music for this new film, I said yes before he could finish the sentence. The main reason for that was that in The Force Awakens, I became madly infatuated, in love I guess along with the rest of the world, with the character of Rey…I just thought…I don’t want anybody else writing music for Daisy and Rey!”
After an encore performance of the theme to Superman, the concert ended—and with not enough Williams, in my opinion. At nearly 85, John Williams is the most Oscar-nominated person in history (winning five), with 50 nominations (his latest was for The Force Awakens in 2016). Showcasing all of his work would take days, from the scores to Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park to Home Alone and Schindler’s List. A summer concert under the stars has got to be a “best of” with such an incredible catalogue, but I would have preferred less of Newman’s portion and more of the works of Williams, less A Star Is Born and more E.T.
Still, as Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the LA Philharmonic, has said, John Williams is “the Mozart of our day,” and any chance to see him conduct live is a treat, even in a heat wave gone wild.