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Music review: John Williams conducts the LA Phil at Disney Hall

October 18, 2009 |  2:05 pm

Williams When there is a confluence of gala milestones involving the Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Williams is often right there in the thick of things.

When Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003, there were three
such gala concerts – and Williams presided over the last of them.  When the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra made its tumultuous, potentially historic L.A. debut in 2007, guess who briefly took the baton from Gustavo Dudamel to lead an enthusiastic rendition of his “Star Wars” theme?

Over at Hollywood Bowl, when the Oct. 3 multicultural musicfest
that was “¡Bienvenido Gustavo!” finally turned to the star of the show, Williams was there to introduce the young maestro. And now that Dudamel’s series of inaugural events as music director of the Philharmonic are in the books, the subsequent weekend of subscription
concerts at Disney Hall belonged to, yes, John Williams – at the invitation, he said, of Dudamel.

Not only that, Williams’ program Friday night echoed aspects of Dudamel’s programs. Whereas Dudamel gave the world premiere of John Adams’ tribute to the ambiance of film noir, “City Noir,” Williams presented a few tastes of the real deal, an “L.A. Triptych” of three scores from films of that sensibility. And as Dudamel turned to Asia for his second premiere, Unsuk Chin’s “Su,” so did Williams, trotting out a symphonic suite from his Japanese-colored score for “Memoirs of a Geisha.”  

Alas, in the first of three performances this weekend the Philharmonic did not respond at its best for Williams in the first half’s compact survey of Los Angeles-made film music. He started with one of the pioneers, in the form of a brief suite from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” whose splashy, lushly scored opening screamed Hollywood and basically set the stage for much of what was to come. The marches and the love music from Alex North’s “Spartacus” lumbered forth with coagulated textures and little momentum, although Bernard Herrmann’s overtly “Tristan”-flavored  “Scène d’amour” from “Vertigo” fared somewhat better.  

MoserOf the noir threesome – music from Franz Waxman’s “Sunset Boulevard,” Jerry Goldsmith’s “Chinatown” and Miklós Rózsa’s “Double Indemnity” –  it was Goldsmith’s score that held the most interest with its soulful solo trumpet, suave string harmonies with an underlying edge, and strumming and plucking of piano strings.

In Williams’ own stuff, the Philharmonic seemed to perk up, regaining its Salonen-era clarity and precision with balances adjusted more coherently. The “Memoirs” suite expands six film cues as heard on Sony’s soundtrack recording into a satisfying half-hour concert piece, almost a cello concerto. In the solo part originally written for Yo-Yo Ma, cellist Johannes Moser played beautifully with a medium-weight tone quality, executing swooping portamentos as a team of percussionists thwacked a taiko drum and produced delicate, gleaming timbres from the mallet instruments.

The rest of the way, it was John Williams’ greatest hits as the “Adventures on Earth” sequence from “E.T.” soared once again, and the “Imperial March” from “The Empire Strikes Back” pounded down the stretch.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Photos: John Williams, above, and below with cellist Johannes Moser. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (5)

what can one say about this programming? (sigh)

Listening to film music frustrates me. The purpose of film music is to intensify visuals; it doesn't have any real, satisfying musical structure of its own. So the listener to even the most successful film music gets just half an experience. (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Copland excepted...)

Most, if not all, of the music performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last weekend was arranged by the composers themselves specifically to be performable in concert without any visuals. So, the music was presented exactly as intended by the creators and was therefore not "just half an experience". Whether the composers succeeded or not is another question entirely and listeners may have different opinions about that, as well as about the quality of the music chosen by John Williams for this program. But please do not make any judgments about it if you were not personally at one or more of those concerts.

Sorry to disagree. Some film music can and does stand alone. Too bad this has not been recognized by the populace. I believe that film music is also a cut above what passes for classic these days. And, I believe that one time in the future, film music will be recognized for its great contribution to musical literature everywhere!'

I also come from an era when American classical music was poo pooed by the critics because it had not come from Europe. As you can see, that idea has changed. This will also come about with film scores.

Judy Hubbard, whose comments were posted on October 21 has it correct, although somewhat understated. Today, there is no consistency in what can be described as classical music. Today's best symphonic music is more often than not the original scores used in films.

Many of John Williams scores can easily stand out as symphonic music without the films for which the scores were composed. Such scores include include Towering Inferno, the Superman scores, the Star Wars scores, Schindler's List, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc. However, let's not forget other film composers of today's generation: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, James Horner, Andre Desplat, Howard Shore, etc.

In my opinion, one of the most memorable series of film scores stands out as a testament to the ability of film music to stand apart from film as symphonic music. The music to the Lord of the Rings trilogy has been re-worked by the composer (Howard Shore) as a symphony, and has been arranged by others as a trilogy of orchestral suites. In either form--symphony or suite--the music stands independent, and tells the story without the film.

Judy Hubbard has it wrong in only one aspect. The idea of film scores will become mainstream American music is incorrect. Film scores already have become the basis of modern American music.

David S. Naden


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