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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