MSO: The Music of John Williams @ Hamer Hall

I was already plenty pumped to hear the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra play John Williams’ greatest hits, but this special celebration of the 90th birthday of the film score maestro turned out to be even more magical.

Earlier in the year, I regretfully bailed on the free outdoor concert of John Williams’ music at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, but in retrospect I’m glad that I saved myself for this show at the Hamer Hall, where classical orchestras are given proper attention and respect. I snapped up the ticket fairly late and so had to sit at the very back of the packed venue; this night was obviously a big draw for the MSO.

I always love people-watching at gigs, and I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a more mixed and random concert crowd: people of all ages from small kids to old grannies, nerds, hipsters, punks and everyone else you can think of. It’s a testament to the universal love of movies and the decades-spanning career of John Williams, who scored some of the most beloved films and franchises of all time, from Star Wars to Harry Potter.

The evening was hosted by the members of the podcast Art of the Score, who basically turned it into something like a live podcasting episode about John Williams’ musical career, accompanied by the musicians and choir of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Their in-between commentary really helped create a sense of occasion and they struck a good balance of entertaining and informative, explaining the artistry and technical aspects of the music in a fun, humorous and accessible way.

The first half of the show was bookended by the classic themes from Superman and Jurassic Park, and looked at John Williams’ early adventures in film score. Apparently Williams won the first of his five Oscars (from mind-boggling 52 nominations, second only to Walt Disney) for his film adaptation of the musical score for Fiddler on the Roof. He also had a fondness for fanfares, composing a piece that eventually became the theme of the Channel Seven News here in Australia. Another lesser-known aspect of Williams’ career was highlighted by the gorgeous theme for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

As fun as these more obscure tidbits were, the audience was there for the big hits, and the first half delivered with the iconic rousing score for Indiana Jones, Princess Leia’s theme from Star Wars, and the choir joining the musicians on the twinkly Home Alone carol that made everything feel like Christmas. My personal favourite was the instantly recognisable two-note Jaws theme that started a decades-long collaboration between Williams and director Steven Spielberg. As a nice fun touch, the theme ended with a loud piercing collective shriek from the orchestra.

As soon as I spotted the choir, I thought it would be a damn shame not to hear the Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And sure enough, it kicked off the second half of the concert! The Phantom Menace might still remain one of my least favourite Star Wars movies, but that epic duel and that soaring theme will never stop being awesome. Perhaps tellingly, none of Williams’ original music for the sequel trilogy made the cut; I would have thought that they’d at least sneak in Rey’s Theme, which is genuinely lovely.

The solo violinist who dazzled the audience during Fiddler on the Roof earlier in the evening was back for one of my most-anticipated pieces, the sublime, beautiful and sorrowful theme from Schindler’s List that never fails to move me to tears. It was well paired with the equally sombre score written by Williams for Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. For a complete change of mood, there was a funky jazzy theme from Catch Me If You Can (which I still haven’t seen), and of course a couple of lively pieces from the Harry Potter movies, including a chaotic number from Prisoner of Azkaban that’s one of Williams’ more experimental moments.

After teasing the audience with what perhaps are less known themes from Star Wars, the concert concluded in a grand fashion with a triple Star Wars whammy. At first the orchestra performed Throne Room and Finale from A New Hope, which is basically a melange of iconic Star Wars themes. Then for the encore, the conductor Nicholas Buc came back onstage with a glowing red lightsaber, which he used to lead the orchestra into the rendition of The Imperial March. And just to make everyone extra happy, the night ended in a party mode with Cantina Band. Though I have zero interest in anything else Disney does with Star Wars after the mess of the sequel trilogy, Williams’ music for the classic original films still tugs at my emotions and makes the heart beat faster.

When it comes to film composer greats I’d probably still give a slight personal preference to Hans Zimmer, but Williams is undoubtedly a master of the melody and his music is like a sprinkling of special magical fairy dust over the movies. I left the two-hour concert immensely satisfied and with a warm nostalgic glow in my belly.

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