Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
JOHN WILLIAMS CONDUCTS THE CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Between the evening hours of 7:00 and 9:30, on Sunday, July 18, 1999, the seemingly endless ocean of humankind stretched inside and far outside the Ravinia Festival Pavilion located in Highland Park, Illinois heard John Williams lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a special concert of his film music.
I settled in my seat (center, seat HH30 -- thank goodness for my new glasses!) about 15 minutes before the concert began, watching the already massive crowds. I would later hear an estimate that over 23,000 people came, a record for the largest crowd ever at a Ravinia symphonic concert. The orchestra was tuning up, visibly frantic over the sweltering weather, and audibly dampened by the humidity. It was meteorological warfare that spanned throughout the concert, perhaps aided by some slapdash miking and the orchestra having had only one rehearsal. Despite this, there were no bad performances, the worst instances being the string section's susceptibility to moist air and the occasional brass player trying to play while blinded by perspiration.
Concertmaster Samuel Magad walked onstage, to some applause, followed a moment later by maestro John Williams, whose arrival prompted whistles, shouts, and other laudations. Once on the podium, he went directly into his 'Sound the Bells!' fanfare, a rapid, vibrantly composed ceremonial piece originally commissioned for the marriage of Crown Princess Masako of Japan. After an initially slow start, Williams (appearing quite fit) got the pacing together and soared with it, the CSO quickly rendering an assured and note-perfect finale to the work, an assured and note-perfect introduction to the concert.
Latecomers trickled in between pieces, and Williams waited, appearing somewhat annoyed. With a nod to the orchestra, he started "The Cowboys" Overture. This has always been my favorite concert arrangement of a Williams score; wonderfully structured Americana, nostalgic soundscapes, and the joyous feeling of hearing a sort of Western ballet (not unlike Aaron Copland's "Rodeo") make it wildly entertaining, and quite unforgettable.
Now it was time for "The Reivers" Suite, a performance suite based on William Faulkner's text, adapted by screenwriters Irving and Harriet Ravetch. Ossie Davis walked onto the stage. His narration was sometimes whimsical, but mostly flat, and his microphone did not seem to be turned up. A few lines disappeared under the orchestra's own amplification. The orchestra itself handled the score beautifully, though the strings missed an entrance, causing Williams to frown in their direction and lean toward them as if to say, "Where are you?!"
The lively and lovely theme from "Far and Away" (the arrangement for violin that premiered on the Cinema Serenade disc) followed, with Samuel Magad permitting the solos to drift with a largo technique that was at first charming, then tedious and overextended.
Applause marked the arrival of the march from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Forever a crowd-pleaser, there were people mock conducting, tapping their feet, and humming along (admittedly, not always in tune). It was as grand a performance of the march as one could hope for.
I took the opportunity of the intermission to try gauging the crowd's response. The looks on the faces I saw were happy, and I overheard many people talking about how the music affected them, all of it notably positive. It also struck me how varied the demographics were. Most surprising was the huge number of collage students (and younger) -- striking even after consideration of the impact from a certain space movie released nearly two months earlier.
Williams returned to the podium to more cheers, signaling "A Tribute to the Films of Steven Spielberg." An adequate edition of the theme from "Jurassic Park" received too fast a reading, but excerpts from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (sans choir) created aural gold, not to mention the intro made several people jump in their seats! He then addressed the audience for the time that evening, stating what a joy it was to perform with one of the world's finest orchestras, and that it "does wonders for a film composer's ego to have the music played without lasers, dialogue, and explosions..." He segued into an explanation of how there was more than the 'thump-thump' music from "Jaws," and turned to conduct a superb performance of 'Out to Sea & the Shark Cage Fugue.' Samuel Magad followed with the theme from "Schindler's List,"' bringing a scintillating tone to what is quickly becoming a concert hall standard. The tribute ended with the show-stopping march from "1941."
Williams spoke to the crowd for the second and final time to introduce the climax of the concert: a suite from "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace." A boldly presented, expanded version of 'The Flag Parade' -- loaded with additional brass syncopations and string sweetening -- built the crowd into a mild frenzy before 'Anakin's Theme' garnered a more subdued, yet captivated, response. He placed emphasis on the most recognizable nods to Anakin's future. The finale was a non-choral 'Duel of the Fates;' despite the absence of the CSO Chorus, it was a powerful experience, one that allowed the CSO to further showcase its outstanding brass section. Four or so measures before the last note faded into the night, everyone was clapping. By the time that note actually disappeared, everyone was on their feet; the end of the [published] program brought three (yes, *three*) standing ovations.
Williams smiled at the audience, clearly amazed at the reception, stepped back to the podium, and the opening blast of a familiar cue quickly elicited a deafening roar from every person present. The 'Main Title' from "Star Wars" not only excited the concertgoers; it noticeably rejuvenated the orchestra. No compact disc can match the sound heard during those thrilling moments. Again: Three standing ovations...
'Flying' from "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" prompted more audience approval, its classic Howard Hanson-like climax ultimately making jaws drop. Williams gestured to the orchestra frequently and appreciatively, clearly delighted with the results. And with the last standing ovation, he playfully indicated his need for a good night's sleep. It was a pilgrimage I took from Memphis, TN that was worth the mileage, worth the price, and even worth the hour-long wait in a crammed parking lot afterward. It was a phenomenal evening.
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