As John Williams fans were pilgrimaging to London for his first return to Europe in 20 years, the disconcerting message came on Wednesday – two days before the concert on Friday, October 26th – that the 86-year-old legend had fallen ill on his arrival to the English capital and would be cancelling his appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. Still, in conductor Dirk Brossé’s capable hands, we were treated to a spectacular performance of his greatest hits by the brilliant London Symphony Orchestra.
I’m fortunate to have seen John Williams live twice before (once at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012, the other in Boston in 2014), but to have him return to our neck of the woods after 20 years was something thoroughly unexpected. No wonder, then, that the concert tickets sold out quicker than a Justin Bieber gig earlier this year. The disappointment was in correlation with the excitement: When the composer had to cancel due to a sudden illness after his cross-Atlantic flight, hearts fell and anxiety grew. Fortunately, it turned out to be a routine illness, and Williams returned to LA a few days later.
Meanwhile, audiences flocked to a festive Royal Albert Hall on a chilly October evening, intent on showing their affection and love for the ailing maestro by being present at a very special tribute. The amount of empty seats and cancelled tickets were negligible, which in itself was heartwarming.
Replacing John Williams on the podium was the Belgian conductor Dirk Brossé, who’s been a stalwart performer at the World Soundtrack Awards in Ghent for many years – and also assigned with the orchestra rehearsals for this particular event. Perhaps even more exciting was the opportunity to see the London Symphony Orchestra play live, which has had such a long and fruitful collaboration with Williams – especially in the late 70s and early 80s. Ever since I obsessed over those now-dated LSO Plays Classic Rock albums in the late 80s and early 90s, I’ve considered them the best and maybe even most versatile orchestra in the world, and they certainly didn’t do anything to disprove that sentiment this evening – my first ever encounter with them in a live setting.
Adding to this unique atmosphere was the fact that the concert was being broadcast on the Classic FM radio station, and – according to the host – John Williams himself was listening from his hospital bed.
With a setting like that, it was less important that the programme itself consisted of 99% familiar material; all greatest hits and not a lot for the hardcore Williams enthusiast craving the more obscure or lesser played. The benefit here would instead be to hear these pieces performed live by the orchestra that actually played on many of the original recordings.
We were immediately thrown into the eternal «Main Titles» from Star Wars (1977) – performed with an accuracy and clarity I’ve never heard before in a live setting, especially the extremely tricky balance between odd-meter string and brass lines. Not so strange, perhaps, since the LSO played on the original recordings, and I’m sure several of the musicians that played back in 1977 still played in the orchestra this evening. This set the bar for what was to come.
Next was one of the evening’s highlights – a suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Not originally performed by the LSO, but unquestionably one of the best performances of this piece – a suite that moves from the cautious and dissonant to almost Ravel-ian impressionism with the famous 5-note “alien ship” motif intertwined. This has always been one of Williams’ favourites of his own work, and it’s easy to understand why – the dynamic and stylistic range on display are stunning, while still feeling very coherent as a singular vision.
Three cues from the Harry Potter movies were up next – the iconic «Hedwig’s Theme», followed by the pastoral «Fawkes the Phoenix» from Chamber of Secrets (2002) and «Harry’s Wondrous World» from the first film. Sadly nothing from his best score in the saga, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), but the performance certainly rivals the original recordings with beautiful, swirling strings, flute runs and an array of percussion elements.
Another highlight was the «End Title» from John Badham’s Dracula (1979), probably the only semi-rare selection this evening – a dark, gothic romance 13 years before Wojciech Kilar would nurture a similar aesthetic in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Again a score originally performed by the LSO, and no doubt a moving memento of the London days to Williams listening in on the broadcast.
The first half ended with the ubiquitous concert piece «Adventures on Earth» from E.T. (1982) with grand statements of the lofty main themes rivalling the original recordings by a Hollywood orchestra.
Kicking off the second half was another original LSO collaboration – the «Main Theme» from Superman: The Movie (1978), still probably the best superhero score to this day (and in many ways the first proper one). Straussian in tone, it may be a considered a distant cousin to the Star Wars theme, and greeted with thunderous applause from the audience.
«A Child’s Tale» from Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (2016) was rather surprising. It’s apparently a score Williams himself is fond of, since he frequently performs it in concert, but it’s not a score this author is particularly enamoured with. Very whimsical in style, and lacking a red thematic thread, it’s a testament to Williams’ evolved style in recent years. On the other hand, the LSO performance displayed the many orchestrational details of the piece, “jumping” from one instrument group to the other with flowing ease.
This gave way, however, to the ultimate experience this evening – the theme from Jurassic Park (1993), my alltime favourite score. It’s obviously a theme I’ve heard thousands of times, but given the particular circumstance (with Williams in hospital and my own memory of it as a gateway into film music), and the LSO performance – the majestic, slower tempo of the piece, the warm cello chords after the opening brass statement – it was impossible to hold back the tears.
This was followed by his other big (and “couldn’t-be-more-different”) score from 1993, Schindler’s List. While there was nothing technically wrong with orchestra leader Carmine Lauri’s performance of the theme, it did lack some of the gritty, folksy feel of the Itzhak Perlman original (who basically “hit” the strings more violently in his performance). Maybe it’s just because the piece has been performed so many times by now, it’s become somewhat of an ‘evergreen’.
The official programme ended with three more Star Wars cues from the LSO/Williams heyday. First the indelible «The Imperial March» from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with a brass presence and synchronicity I’ve never heard the likes of live before, then Williams’ wonderful, new arrangement of «Han Solo and the Princess» offering intriguing connective tissue that breathes new life into the piece. Finally, the «Throne Room and Finale» from the first film, in which the Elgarian first part rang appropriately through the halls of the arch-British venue.
Of course, given the immense reception from the audience after the rousing finale, encores were almost a given. Brossé wandered back on-stage and people immediately chuckled as they heard the first few bars from Jaws (1975) – a “fatter” and more elegant version of the theme than I’ve ever heard live before. The second encore, «Yoda’s Theme» from The Empire Strikes Back, was introduced by one of the orchestra members (perhaps one who originally performed on the score, but from a distance she looked a bit too young), before the third and final encore – and probably the one people were waiting for, filling the gap of his ‘greatest hits’: «Raider’s March» from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Sometimes, through disappointment, magical things can happen. The LSO was disappointed, the audience was disappointed and Williams – perhaps most of all – was disappointed he couldn’t be there himself (as he related to us through a letter read on-stage). But maybe that became an extra incentive to truly honour a legend in the last leg of his career. The LSO certainly played their hearts out this evening – unquestionably the best live performance by an orchestra I’ve ever seen or heard in my life (regardless of material) – and the audience movingly shattered the roof of the Royal Albert Hall with rousing applause, standing ovations and respectful attention when called for.
It’s highly doubtful John Williams will ever attempt a European trip again, but somehow the event transcended his person and became more of a communal gathering of people and performers whose life he has affected – as the man himself, bedridden in a hospital nearby, attentively took it all in through the airwaves. A kind of simultaneous, magical media event that I’m thankful to have been part of.