Editor’s Note: While the reviews section is meant for film reviews, there will be the occasional deviation into related territory. The subject below isn’t just related, it is absolutely essential to cinema…
You’ve felt his divine presence before. All those times when you traveled to a galaxy far, far away, or soared into the clouds with the last son of Krypton, or accompanied an intrepid archaeologist on his amazing adventures to retrieve lost relics, that was Williams aiding your departure from reality.
The man is one of the greatest composers in the history of cinema. His music is as iconic as the films he’s scored for. In some cases, even more so. It has often been said that cinema is a purely visual artform. It’s not. Even in the days of silent film, the moving pictures were complemented by a soundtrack. While you may be able to enjoy a movie with the sound turned off, the truth is that the viewing experience is simply incomplete without audio. Especially music.
A film score informs the audience of a particular emotional intent, and often acts as a character in itself. Yet, the best film scores manage to be beautiful pieces of music, without calling too much attention to themselves. You are supposed to be totally caught up in the moment, be it terrifying, tear-jerking, or adrenaline-pumping. Successful film music aids and enhances the immersion. Anything that makes you notice “Hey, that’s a pretty bombastic melody” or “Hmm, that alien’s make-up looks so fake” just takes you out of the movie. The spell is broken.
John Williams is that rare breed of composer whose scores sweep you along in a glorious tide of emotion without making you aware you are being manipulated into feeling those emotions. His genius is in the ability to be simultaneously larger-than-life and subtle. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences evidently agrees. Across his seven decade-long career Williams has been nominated 45 times, and has won 5 Oscars. I guess it’s safe to say that I’m a pretty big fan. Nay, devotee.
So, when I heard that the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was holding “A Tribute to John Williams” I could not for the life of me pass up the opportunity. Now, chamber orchestras aren’t exactly part of my cultural landscape. I used to listen to Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and the occasional Mozart back in school, and that’s the extent of my capacity for classical music. The trip to Dewan Filharmonik Petronas was a first for me. But this was a worthy pilgrimage… and for any self-respecting film geek, a mandatory one.
Before the performance got underway, conductor Richard Kaufman gave the audience a brief preamble. He made a striking point that anyone’s who’s ever been to the movies will inevitably have heard Williams’ work. That’s how pervasive the man’s oeuvre is. Kaufman is qualified to speak. He’s performed under Williams as a violinist for several of his film scores. Kaufman has since become an established name himself, with a Grammy win among his numerous accomplishments.
They sure chose the right piece to open the show with. The “Superman March” is as grand a filmic anthem as you can ever get. Whatever pre-conceived notions I had about whether a local orchestra could pull off a number as big as this were swept aside when the strings soared and the brass section thundered through bar upon bar. This was the theme that made audiences believe a man can fly, and they nailed that feeling. The end was met with very hearty applause, and a very wide grin from me.
The next one however, wasn’t as flawless. There was a discernible bum note during the opening of “Jurassic Park”. Kaufman picked up the slack and the buildup went without a hitch. One of the things I love most about this piece is its sense of majesty and wonder as it builds towards a crescendo. The MPO delivered, but it didn’t seem as rousing as I recall. And I can recall every single note of Williams’ themes like the back of my lightsaber. There was a certain verve missing, and I suspect the musicians were a little distracted by that early false step.
Kaufman showed no sign of being affected in his follow-up monologue. He spoke about his professional relationship with John Williams, and this was followed by a pleasant surprise. The big screen above the orchestra played a short pre-recorded video message by Williams himself. He congratulated Kaufman on his Malaysian stint and thanked the audience for appreciating his work. The show then continued. The next two numbers were played a little by-the-numbers, though the MPO acquitted themselves a bit more strongly on “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” compared to “Sayuri’s Theme” from “Memoirs Of A Geisha”. Which could be due to the fact that “Sayuri’s Theme” isn’t really one of Williams’ better efforts.
Here’s also where I have a minor bone of contention. I found some of the programme choices odd. They excluded seminal stuff like the theme from “Schindler’s List” in favour of lesser works from “Hook” and “Harry Potter”. Granted, Schindler’s is more of a string showcase (with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman playing beautifully on the original soundtrack). But I doubt the audience would’ve complained if the MPO gave its string section more of a workout.
As if to placate the audience (ie: me), the musicians played their hearts out on the next piece, probably Williams’ most recognisable tune: “Star Wars”. It’s one thing to hear that legendary theme on the silver screen, or even on a neighbour-enraging 7.1 channel surround sound system in your AV room. It is something else entirely to hear it played live right in front of you by an army of talented musicians. The experience was like listening with new ears. It was magical.
The performance broke for a 20-minute intermission. People stepped out of the concert hall, buzzing from the high. I was glad to leave the hall. Its design may be lovely and the acoustics may be world-class (I’m assuming), but the air-conditioning was crap. It didn’t help that the dress code was formal, which meant I was in a suit. We retreated to the foyer, where the air was much cooler. The thing is, I was actually raring for the show to resume, because the 2nd half’s slated opener would be my all-time favourite Williams composition: the march from “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”. Indiana Jones’ theme!
It’s the one piece of music that never fails to pick me up. It’s my ultimate motivational tool. The MPO did do justice to it, though I would’ve preferred a slightly more crisp delivery of the horns. For some reason they seemed a wee bit muted. I was enjoying the heck out of it nonetheless. When it ended, I let out a loud “Woo-hoo!” amidst the applause. I’m not sure it was entirely appropriate for such a formal setting, but I didn’t care. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one in the crowd. The fanboys were out in force that night.
Things took a jazzy turn with “Viktor’s Tale”, the character theme from the Tom Hanks starrer “The Terminal”. It was a nice demonstration of Williams’ range. His approach is primarily classical, but once in a while, he flexes his muscles with more contemporary stuff. It’s a sign of an artist knowing how to have fun, so kudos to the programme directors for including it. He then followed up with a piece that is perhaps most indicative of Williams’ gift for making his music an actual character in a film. Just close your eyes and hum the “Jaws” theme. If that doesn’t scream ‘Shark!’ I don’t know what does. It’s full of foreboding and impending doom.
The night’s performance closed with a Steven Spielberg classic, “ET”. A stirring experience, but not quite the grand finale to round up such an astounding body of work. As the orchestra members took their bows and Kaufman made his exit, the audience clapped loudly but tentatively. Calls for an encore rang out. We didn’t have to wait long.
The conductor stepped out on stage again, and introduced the last number. It’s not one of Williams’ most famous pieces, but it was a great choice. The “1941” march is loud, manic, and celebratory. It’s also an excellent way for any orchestra to show off its full range and prowess. The MPO was in a showing off mood, alright. The audience matched that enthusiasm with a thunderous round of applause. And with that, the show was over.
Overall, “A Tribute To John Williams” was a very satisfying experience, even though the performance wasn’t perfect. In any case it’s always a pleasure to support the homegrown arts scene in whatever form, be it filmic or musical. I was a little surprised to see so many foreigners amongst the MPO, but I’ll put that down to our limited pool of classical musicians.
Creating programmes like these make classical music more accessible and appealing to the average Malaysian. Admittedly, it’s still all rather bourgeois, but at least with shows that cater to pop cultural sensibilities, the organisers are extending interest beyond society’s elites. You certainly don’t get any more mainstream than the music from Steven Spielberg movies.
Which goes to show that John Williams is a god of and for the people. Or at the very least, film geeks like me.