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Photo: Marian Schedenig

John Williams, Anne Sophie Mutter & the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Wiener Musikverein

On January 18th and 19th, John Williams conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in two memorable and long anticipated concerts of his own film music – a historic event in more ways than one. In this extensive and highly personal review, I report not only on the concerts, but also the events leading up to them, and their significance for the film music genre.

– “Playing something like this in the Musikverein!”
– “You can play this kind of music everywhere.”
– “Yes, but not here!”

That’s an exchange I overheard ten years ago, in April 2010, when I left my gallery seat after a rare concert of film music at the Musikverein. The programme, a typical mix of popular film music, had included some pieces by John Williams, including an oddly arranged suite from Jaws, a suite from Korngold’s The Sea Hawk, the James Bond theme, Alexander Courage’s Star Trek theme (with lyrics) and similar fare. The little exchange paints a perfect picture of Vienna’s long-time attitude towards film music.

Over the years, film music concerts, once a rarity, have slowly become a fixture of the local concert scene, but rather than joining the regular concert repertoire, film music has been relegated to its own niche of “event concerts”: Often focused on spectacle (like film clips and light show effects) more than on the music itself; almost always amplified; usually under-rehearsed – and consequently drawing crowds that show up for the spectacle first and the music second. Hardly a state of affairs that presents symphonic film music as an artform that can, and should, claim its place in the repertoire of 20th and 21st century orchestral music.

As for the Musikverein, the very heart of Vienna, revered as one of the world’s capitals of music – I don’t recall any other film music concerts there after the one mentioned initially. And while the Wiener Philharmoniker would actually perform Williams’ Star Wars suite just a month later, that was part of the annual open air Sommernachtskonzert (basically their version of a Pops concert), and most likely came about because of Seiji Ozawa’s friendship with Williams – Franz Welser-Möst only stepped in as a conductor on short notice when Ozawa was taken ill. But an entire concert of “film music”, at the venerated Musikverein, by the Wiener Philharmoniker themselves, conducted by Williams himself? That certainly seemed exceedingly unlikely.

When, to everyone’s surprise, two concerts with Williams conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker were announced in 2018, I queued at the Musikverein’s ticket office at 4:00 in the morning before ticket sales began for members (two days before the general sale), just to make sure I was not too late. After all, the concert with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London, fitting roughly an audience of 4,000 people, which was to take place only eight days before the Vienna concerts, had sold out within hours. By the time the ticket office opened, less than ten people were in a queue, and in fact both concerts wouldn’t sell out until a few weeks before they were supposed to happen. I was confused about the lack of publicity: Posters would not go up until months later, and newspaper articles or other forms of advertisement were equally rare. In my view, these concerts should sell out easily: Williams’s first (and probably, at then 86 years old, last) concerts on mainland Europe, and with the Philharmoniker no less. Would Vienna’s attitude towards film music relegate even such a historic event to obscurity and leave Williams to give two concerts in a half-empty Musikverein?

Then, just a few days before the London concert, Williams was announced to have fallen ill. The LSO concert went ahead (with the excellent Dirk Brossé stepping in as the conductor), while the Vienna concerts were canceled. People were worried about Williams, and naturally dismayed at missing out (although everyone in London agreed that that turned out to be a fantastic concert nevertheless). For me, it would have been the first time seeing Williams, something I’d been wishing for for years. But in addition to that, I was disappointed that a significant event in the history of film music had only almost happened: Over the 170+ years of their existence, very few composers have actually conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in their own music. Definitive information is hard to come by, but it seems to be that they can probably be counted on two hands, and that list naturally includes names like Richard Strauss, Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez. Having Williams join that list by conducting his own music in Vienna would have been a much needed step in, as Williams put it in a recent interview, “shaking off the stigma of film music”.

Williams meets fellow conductor Ricardo Muti. Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Wien Musikverein/Facebook.

Rumours soon appeared that both Williams and the Philharmoniker were interested in finding a replacement date for the concerts, but that it certainly wouldn’t happen before Williams had finished writing and recording his score for the final Star Wars episode at the end of 2019. Not counting on it, I bought a ticket to see Williams in Tanglewood in August 2019, which was a great concert experience, and a chance to visit the fabulous Tanglewood grounds which of course have their own special significance for Williams fans. Still, the regret of having missed out on hearing Williams with the Philharmoniker remained, and so I was thrilled and surprised along with everyone else when, just a few weeks after my return from the US, replacement dates for the canceled concerts were indeed announced for early 2020, hot on the heels of the release of The Rise of Skywalker. It seemed like they didn’t want to chance anything and had fixed the earliest dates that they could agree to.

Living just ten minutes from the Musikverein, I again queued in person before the advance sale opened, though this time I figured being there at half past five in the morning should be enough. This time, I was third in the queue when I arrived, and by the time the ticket office opened at 9, around 20 people had assembled. I was able to get excellent tickets for myself and several friends I had coordinated with. Someone at the Musikverein clearly had an appreciation for Williams, as all the tickets were labeled “1138” and “1177” (a reference to the Star Wars films) for Saturday and Sunday, respectively, just as had been the case two years earlier. Later that day, I learned with some satisfaction that a large amount of tickets had been sold within the first few hours, and by the time the general sale opened two days later, both concerts were all but sold out already. No need to worry about a half-empty hall this time!

Still, two points of unease remained: Would Williams remain healthy this time? The concerts were scheduled for just a few weeks before his 88th birthday, and he had not conducted a full concert of his own in years. I was determined not to get my hopes up too much until the moment he actually stepped on the stage. And also: Would the Philharmoniker actually appreciate his music and treat him with respect? After all, the orchestra has a highly conservative reputation, and based on how little modern music generally features in their repertoire, and how long it took for them to even start accepting women into the orchestra (they didn’t until as late as 1997), that reputation is certainly deserved.

At first, the programme as originally announced in 2018 was listed again for the 2020 concerts. It changed a couple of times over the following weeks, and a pattern emerged when the first half listed several pieces in succession which Williams had adapted for Anne-Sophie Mutter‘s solo violin just a few months earlier. About half way between the opening of ticket sales and the actual dates of the concerts (and after several weeks of increasing rumours), when the concerts were already sold out, Mutter herself was officially confirmed as the guest soloist on both concerts. Judging from her excitement about Williams and his music – Williams had initially agreed to arrange his film music for her only after continued insistence (and cookies) on her part – it seems clear that Mutter featuring in these concerts came about because of her own desire to be a part of Williams’s Vienna debut.

Excitement grew as the date of the concerts approached and Williams was shown to be healthy and in good spirits in several clips and interviews surrounding the release of The Rise of Skywalker. Insider information on the internet confirmed that Williams had a flight to Vienna on Thursday the week before the concerts. Rehearsals were scheduled to start the following Wednesday. No further news appeared until Wednesday, when pictures of Williams at the Musikverein started making the rounds and people who had been able to visit the first rehearsal reported that things were going well and Williams was over the moon about the Philharmoniker, who could already play all the pieces flawlessly. Further pictures appeared, showing Williams meeting Riccardo Muti at the Musikverein, who was conducting the Philharmoniker in his own series of concerts a few days earlier. At the end of the week, people from all over Europe started to arrive for the concerts.

Williams at the Third Man Museum in Vienna, with Anne-Sophie Mutter. Photo: Anne-Sophie Mutter/Facebook.

On Saturday, I arrived at the Musikverein some 90 minutes before the concert. A large number of people were already gathered in front of the stage entrance, which faces the rear entrance of the Hotel Imperial, where Williams (fittingly) was supposed to be accomodated. I joined the crowd, hoping to get a glimpse of Williams when he arrived, and just perhaps an autograph (unlikely, given the number of people and the fact that Williams had stopped giving autographs years earlier when the numbers of fans grew too large; I certainly wouldn’t pursue him to get one, but I still wanted to be there just in case he took a few moments to sign things). More people arrived, and I met up with several friends who joined the crowd. Excitement grew. About half an hour before the concert, Williams arrived: A black limousine drove him past the crowds directly into the Musikverein (as we would confirm the next day, he actually left the Imperial at the front entrance to enter the limousine, which drove him around the hotel). Once inside, the doors were closed and Williams disembarked. I couldn’t see him myself from my spot, but several others did. Knowing that Williams had in fact arrived inside the Musikverein meant that I could finally stop thinking cautiously and get truly excited about the concert.

Along with my friends, I entered the Musikverein and queued at the cloakroom. The Musikverein was already bustling with people – aside from the sold out Williams concert, there were several other concerts on the same day. I spotted several more friends from the internet, a few of whom I had been meeting on and off for some twenty years at various film music concerts (mostly in London). Finally, we went inside.

My ticket on Saturday was for a first category seat close to the middle of parterre row 4 (the seventh row from the front, counting the three Cercle rows), close enough to the stage to have a clear, direct view of Williams, and snap a few photos during the applause. Looking around, I could see the hall was packed; on the left side balcony I spotted former Austrian president Heinz Fischer (whom Williams had already met a few days earlier when they apparently shared a box to hear Riccardo Muti conduct the Philharmoniker in Verdi’s Requiem) and his wife, and former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.

As soon as Williams appeared on the stage, the entire audience (roughly 2,000 people in total) was on its feet within seconds to welcome him with a thunderous standing ovation. Williams, clearly relaxed and beaming with joy, walked with a measured but sure-footed pace, and stepped on the podium with a bit of effort, where a stool had been put which he moved aside. He still had to wait a while for the audience to calm down before he could launch the Philharmoniker into the concert’s first piece, «Flight to Neverland» from Hook. The posters on the Musikverein’s walls still showed an earlier version of the programme with some different pieces, and I would have loved to have the concert start with the Olympic Fanfare and Theme listed there, but the online programme had been correct for weeks and everyone was already prepared for Hook as the actual opener.

It certainly served its purpose of spiriting the audience away to Williams’s own musical Neverland, and the Philharmoniker, playing with 8 horns and in an American string layout (rather than their more common split violins and double basses in the rear), dived into the music with verve and a glorious sound that perfectly matched the piece’s lush orchestrations. Frenetic applause arose when the piece was finished. The audience on both days proved very well behaved indeed: Coughing rarely, and often withholding the applause until Williams had lowered his hands (and even when the excitement was too great, they always waited until the final note had faded away). Only once did I briefly hear someone behind me talking during the music. You’ll find a much less disciplined audience at any Philharmoniker subscription concert.

Williams is greeted at the Wien Musikverein. Photo: Marian Schedenig

Next came excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a definitive highlight of any Williams concert. The suite’s scope, from the bold opening crescendo through Ligeti-like string patterns and brass clusters, culminating in Williams’s iconic 5 note theme in dazzling Richard Strauss-style tonality, was a perfect showcase for the Philharmoniker’s colour palette.

Williams now took a microphone that was set ready for him and addressed the audience for the first time. “Guten Tag, meine Damen und Herren! Ich spreche kein Deutsch”, he began in flawless German, before switching to English and impressing how happy and honoured he was to be here. He continued to introduce Anne-Sophie Mutter as the soloist of the next pieces and presented her as a world citizen who brings music to all continents, praising her level of artistry along with that of the Philharmoniker and the Musikverein with a dry: “What a treat!” On a sign from Williams, the stagehand who brought Mutter’s music stand took away the stool from Williams’s podium – he would conduct the entire concert standing.

This first block of solo violin pieces started off with «Hedwig’s Theme», certainly one of the most complex and virtuosic pieces of those prepared for her by Williams. Mutter seemed slightly nervous, and did make a few mistakes in the more tricky parts. But then, she’d set the bar very highly for herself, as clearly the deliberate choice had been made to include any and all of the extra tricky pieces and balance them with a few of the most lyrical ones (which require all the more expression by the soloist). «Hedwig» was thus followed by the theme from Sabrina, «Donnybrook Fair» from Far and Away, and finally «The Devil’s Dance» from The Witches of Eastwick, the only piece left off of the Across the Stars album because it had not been completed in time for rehearsals – the upcoming album release of the concerts will be the first time that the latter piece is commercially available.

Jubilant applause followed each of the pieces, and each time Williams gestured in vain to Mutter to step forward and “claim” her applause – Mutter, a Williams fan as big as any in the audience, persistently refused and instead happily redirected the applause to Williams himself.

Mutter left the stage for the final piece before the intermission, and Williams again took the microphone to present “the last reel from E.T.” (it was in fact «Adventures on Earth», the slightly restructured concert suite based on the music from that reel), commenting that it is very pleasing for a composer’s “fragile ego” to be allowed to present the music “without the distraction of the film” and giving a quick description of the on screen action underscored by the music, quipping that he wrote it a long time ago, “when I was 12”.

Of all the pieces on the programme, this was probably the one most directly “filmic”: Most others were either concert arrangements of specific themes from their respective films, or at least based on a single scene with one specific musical idea. By contrast, «Adventures on Earth» spans roughly ten minutes of on-screen action – and yet, the piece is a perfect match for a symphonic setting, its emotional journey, from the exciting opening chase (complete with onomatopoeic bicycle effects) through the intimate, impressionistic farewell music to the culminating bittersweet fanfare, matched by orchestrations that pass the score’s numerous themes through all the instrument groups, with plenty of solos. Williams briefly lost the second violins during a decelerando, but they quickly recovered (the same passage was performed flawlessly in the second concert the next day).

Roaring applause and another standing ovation accompanied Williams into the intermission. For my part, I already felt like I had just experienced a complete concert (though I also took constant comfort in knowing that I had another ticket for the next day and thus never had to feel sorry when a piece was already over).

Anne-Sophie Mutter salutes John Williams. Photo: Marian Schedenig

After the audience and the Philharmoniker (those that hadn’t stayed for some last minute practice) had returned to the hall after the intermission, Williams came back to (naturally) another standing ovation. The second part of the concert opened with the theme from Jurassic Park, i.e. the concert suite that combines both the lyrical theme for the dinosaurs and the rousing fanfare for the island.

«Dartmoor, 1912» followed, from the War Horse score which I much admired when it came out but hadn’t played in a long time. The concert piece, which combines the opening and finale of the score, spans a series of different styles, opening with a distinctly English pastoral sound complete with flute solo (both very much invoking Williams’s English namesake, Ralph Vaughan Williams) before leading into a bouncing section that builds up to the film’s main theme. The Philharmoniker captured the sound perfectly, and the brass chorale at the end was one of the concert’s unexpected highlights (and had not just me wishing that something from Lincoln had been on the programme as well). Williams had the solo flutist stand up after the piece, who happily returned the applause.

Next up was one of Williams’ most elaborate concert extensions of his film music: «Out to Sea/Shark Cage Fugue» from Jaws. Right from its bouncy opening, the piece gives every section of the orchestra its individual workout, long before diving into the brooding fugue. Continually growing in intensity, it culminates with deep, droning brass chords overlaying the fugue, an effect that’s even more stunning in a live performance and with the Philharmoniker’s massive brass section.

Continuing the so far unbroken string of pieces from Steven Spielberg films in the second half of the programme, the next cue was Williams’s recent re-arrangement of «Marion’s Theme» from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like Sabrina, the piece plays with allusions to the sound of Hollywood’s Golden Age (which was so directly influenced by European and especially by Viennese composers), and the Philharmoniker revelled in that sound.

Williams now took to the microphone again to introduce the last segment of the concert’s regular programme by telling a few of his usual Star Wars anecdotes.

The first of the scheduled three pieces from the Star Wars series was «The Rebellion is Reborn» from The Last Jedi. After not being impressed by it when I first heard it on CD, I had developed an appreciation for it over time, but I had not expected it to be one of the concert’s highlights. Hearing it live and with the Philharmoniker’s full palette of colours revealed a wonderful contrast of light and dark, and a lot of interesting effects drawn from the piece’s intentionally schizophrenic rhythmic backbone.

This was followed by «Luke and Leia», the densest of Williams’s lyrical themes for the saga. Sadly, this was the shortened version now common for concert performances, with an abridged opening and a cut in the middle of the piece that drops some of the most interesting material and invariably makes it sound like the entire orchestra had just missed a page. Still, the Philharmoniker made the most of its warm harmonies, and earned the solo hornist a special applause.

Once the applause ended, Williams immediately launched the orchestra into the iconic opening chord of the «Main Theme» from Star Wars, the piece that had introduced me, and probably a considerable share of the audience (and also Anne-Sophie Mutter) to his music. In my view, Williams has recently been getting more out of this piece than in most of his recordings. I had heard him conduct it in Tanglewood the previous summer and already thought it one of his best versions, and the Philharmoniker gave it their all. If the previous hour and a half of the concert had had its share of massive orchestral climaxes, the hall was now physically shaking. And with the orchestra’s flawless balance that let every small detail of orchestration come through clearly, the piece has never sounded better. For me, hearing it in this setting, and in an all but perfect performance that left no room for even the slightest regret, brought 25+ years of listening to Williams’s music (and, in fact, music in general) full circle.

From the rehearsal at the Musikverein. Photo: Wien Musikverein/Facebook.

Once the final chord had faded away, the audience got to their feet and erupted in what is possibly the biggest applause the Golden Hall has yet experienced. Williams, clearly a bit tired now compared to the beginning of the concert, welcomed the ovation with his trademark humility.

Of course, the audience was still hoping for encores. Three encores are usual for Williams concerts, and there were a few likely candidate pieces that everyone wanted to hear. Three encores had in fact been programmed, and had leaked on the internet, but in the end we would get even more than that.

Anne-Sophie Mutter now returned to the stage and Williams took the microphone to introduce the first encore, «Nice to Be Around» from Cinderella Liberty – the oldest piece in the programme (in its original form as a jazz piece with harmonica solo, also arranged as a jazz song), comparatively obscure even among Williams aficionados until its recent return to the spotlight as one of Mutter’s favourites of the new violin adaptations (my personal guess is that it was played on Mutter’s own request, as it had not been one of the original three encores).

Next came «Remembrances», the secondary theme from Schindler’s List, which Williams introduced without resorting to his famous (and, through repetition, now somewhat cliched) anecdote about how he told Spielberg he’d need a better composer for the film. Mutter’s rendition was heartfelt, and considering how directly film music arose from the works of Jewish composers who fled to Hollywood from the Nazis, having it performed at the Musikverein was a poignant moment.

Finally, Williams introduced «The Duel» from Tintin (which he pronounced the French way), explaining how the music mimics the on-screen fencing duel in the film – Mutter spontaneously cut in with two quick violin figures to illustrate the concept. The tour the force arrangement which perfectly juxtaposes the solo violin and orchestra was the perfect ending for the set of solo violin encores. More standing ovations followed, with the now familiar interplay between Williams urging Mutter to take a step forward and her refusing and instead applauding him.

Mutter stayed on for the next encore, which got no special introduction from Williams – nor did it need one: As soon as the opening rhythm of the «Raider’s March» rang out, there was a spontaneous burst of applause, which fortunately died down quickly to not disturb the music. Mutter unassumingly joined the first violins so she could play along – she had done the same thing at her Munich open air concert that first premiered the full set of violin arrangements. That concert had been amplified, and the specially miked solo violin had stood out rather oddly in the standard orchestral arrangement. There was no such problem at the Musikverein, as she simply stood next to the first violins, playing along with natural acoustics. Of all the programme’s pieces, this was perhaps the most “un-symphonic”: a straightforward march, and probably more “American” and “pops” than anything else in the programme. The Philharmoniker didn’t mind and gave it their rousing best. The Indiana Jones theme played on Vienna horns is something you don’t hear every day.

Even more intense ovations followed, and applause by the Philharmoniker, as Williams took a bow, left the stage and returned. One of his standard pieces was still missing, and once he had managed, with difficulty, to somewhat calm down the applause, Williams turned once more to the orchestra for the fifth and final encore.

«The Imperial March» is one of my all-time favourite Williams pieces, and I have a clear ideal picture of it: It should be stately, not brutal; menacing only because that’s how it’s written, not because it is performed that way – it serves, after all, as the hymn of the Empire, and while they are indeed the bad guys in the films, they naturally don’t see themselves that way. Fortunately, Williams seems to have a similar view of the piece (as an interview snippet that briefly appeared on the Philharmoniker’s Facebook page confirmed), and the final encore was surely the best version of the march that has yet been performed. A measured pace that never dragged but never hurried along either, a delicate misterioso in the middle section, and with the horns blasting out the final statement of the theme, the concert ended with one of its most powerful moments.

Williams at the Vienna National Library. Photo: Anne-Sophie Mutter/Facebook.

With the audience on its feet again for a massive final ovation and the beaming Philharmoniker joining in the applause, Williams took a few more bows and also turned and waved to the side balconies, before finally indicating, with his trademark sleep gesture, that it was time to leave.

After the concert, I talked to more of my online acquaintances. Everyone was excited and in agreement that the concert had been fantastic. Fortunately, like me, many of them had tickets for the next day as well.

In London, where there had only been a single concert starting in the evening, efforts had been made to get the entire group of regulars (both on- and offline) together for a meal and meetup before the concert. Sadly, the times of the Vienna concerts (Saturday’s was at 15:30, and the Sunday one would start at 11:00 in the morning) and the fact that there were two of them made such plans much more complicated, and people split into different groups. I talked to as many friends with plans of their own as I could find after the concert, then went for food and drinks with my usual group of people who always come together at Austrian film music concerts. We ended up exchanging our thoughts about the concert until late at night, though not as late as usual after a concert – after all, there was another one to attend early next day.

For Sunday, I had a balcony seat. Sitting down, I wondered about the acoustics. For the first time, I had the opportunity to hear the same concert twice to directly compare the difference in sound – after years of hearing big orchestral works by composers like Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss, performed by world class orchestras like the Philharmoniker, lead by renowned conductors like Rattle, Harnoncourt, Thielemann, Haitink, Welser-Möst, and many others, I had come to the conclusion that the acoustics on the balcony were always at least a little disappointing: Too much reverb, at the expense of transparency and orchestral details, and a general effect of being just a bit too far from the action to hear the music the way it is supposed to sound. Usually, the better I knew a work, the more pronounced the effect would be, as I was more conscious of any details I couldn’t hear but knew to be there. As an example, I once heard Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder from a comparable seat, performed by Renée Fleming, the Staatskapelle Dresden and Thielemann, and could barely make out Fleming’s soprano voice among the sound of the orchestra.

It is a testament to Williams’s skill, perhaps as a conductor, but certainly as an orchestrator, that the sound on the balcony was just as good as it had been from my parterre seat the previous day. The balcony did have a bit more reverb, but that only gave the orchestra an extra bit of punch – every little detail I’d memorised in years (or decades) of listening to CD recordings was still there to hear. Mutter’s solo violin was less prominent when her part switched from lead voice to accompaniment, but it was always audible as a colour, and came through clearly whenever she took over the lead voice again. Even from the balcony, this was one of the best sounding concerts I have ever experienced at the Musikverein.

The programme was the same as on Saturday, but hearing it all over again didn’t seem redundant in the slightest. If anything, the experience on Saturday had been quite emotionally overwhelming, and listening to it again allowed me to focus better. I had only noticed a small number of mistakes by the orchestra and Mutter on Saturday. By the accounts of different people, there had been quite a few more, but Sunday’s performances were much cleaner and nearly faultless. There had been a small flub during the third solo horn phase of the Jurassic Park theme on Saturday; there was an even smaller mistake on Sunday, but in a different place of the piece (also, little flubs are part of the deal when listening to performances featuring Vienna horns, and both of these were minor).

Williams’s little speeches to the audience were the same, in content, as on the previous day, but while he clearly prepared what he was going to talk about before the concerts, he obviously came up with the actual words on the spot, as those were quite different – though no less eloquent – on Sunday.

The audience reaction and response of the performers likewise followed the same pattern as on Saturday, except that the «Raider’s March» began without spontaneous applause from the audience this time. Even though it was only about 2:00 in the afternoon when the concert ended, Williams again made his “go to sleep” gesture for his final farewell.

He could not have been too exhausted, though: A little after the concert was finished and the audience had left the hall, Williams and the orchestra returned to do a few pickup shoots, obviously to patch up a few bits of the performances for the CD and DVD/Blu-ray releases that have since been announced by Deutsche Grammophon. Only a few hours later, Williams and Mutter (who was scheduled for a concert in Kansas City two days later) flew back to the USA. In the aftermath of the concert, several photos, apparently from the days before the concerts, appeared online (mainly on Mutter’s instagram channel), showing Williams and Mutter visiting the Third Man museum, the archive of the Musikverein (where they were shown original manuscripts by Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Bach, and Brahms), and the National Library, where Mutter began a book sponsorship for the original print of Beethoven’s violin concerto and dedicated it to Williams.

Photo: Marian Schedenig

Reviews in Austrian newspapers were unequivocally positive. Der Standard, which generally favours reviews with “witty” criticism over those with actual information about the music, titled its article “A Visit from God” and couldn’t help drawing attention to “the fans” in an effort to point out a difference to “proper” classical concerts, yet ended up with a generally positive conclusion that, against expectations, did not reveal its title as farcical. Die Presse, formerly the home of infamous critics like Eduard Hanslick and Julius Korngold, whose current chief reviewer of orchestral music is a known opponent of Williams and his craft, featured an article by a different journalist who also, besides a few snide remarks about certain moments in Williams’s music that are supposedly copied from famous works by other composers, could not help but conclude with overall praise for the music and performances. Others, like the Wiener Zeitung, were simply overwhelmingly positive.

The historic significance I’d already attributed to the fact that these concerts were happening at all was ultimately surpassed by the triumphant manner in which they did happen. After decades of writing and, with his 13 year tenure of the Boston Pops, his establishment of regular film music programmes at Tanglewood, and his ongoing conducting engagements, performing music that has inspired tens of thousands people world-wide to listen to orchestral music in the first place, Williams has firmly vindicated film music as a successful and worthy part of the orchestral tradition that has now finally taken its rightful place in the heart of Vienna’s music scene.

For Williams, who turned 88 on February 8th, and who finished both his much lauded album with Anne-Sophie Mutter and his ninth and final score (over a course of 42 years) in the Star Wars franchise over the previous months, these concerts clearly mark yet another peak in his career, which is now entering its 69th year. Since the concerts, Williams has won another Grammy (his 25th) and still has the chance of converting his 52nd Oscar nomination (for The Rise of Skywalker) into his 6th win. Luckily, he shows no intention of slowing down: He is already set to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in April, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (again with Anne-Sophie Mutter) in June, followed by two appearances in Tanglewood during the summer.

And the Philharmoniker? Turns out they loved Williams. They praised him as a first rate conductor who, unlike many of their regular big name conductors, always stays focused on the music without resorting to showy antics. They had never before experienced a comparable atmosphere or audience reaction. And they loved him as a composer: The final encore came about when Williams was asked if they could not also play the «Imperial March» as well. He said he’d love to, but he was worried that the horn section would be too exhausted after everything else they had to play. The march was added as the fifth and final encore when Williams learned that it was, in fact, the explicit wish of the horn section to play it.

For me, and likely many others who were there, these were the concert experiences of a lifetime. It is unlikely I will ever hear a better concert (though who knows – since the concert, Williams has already mentioned in an interview on US radio that he can’t wait to come back). But we will always cherish the memories of these two days, and the upcoming CD and Blu-ray will help keep them alive. For those who were not so fortunate to attend, the album will be a rare opportunity to experience brand new, definitive recordings of some of Williams’s best compositions.

What a treat indeed.

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While we wait for the official video release on DVD and Blu-ray, here’s a playlist of some Youtube videos made by fans:

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