Archive for November, 2009

John Williams: Thoughts and In-Concert

November 30th, 2009 | Category: News

For a moment last Friday night, after a discussion with a VE member, I was transported back in time to the year 1999, and for the first time in years, I re-experienced the flurry of emotions that I felt as I lived through the excitement surrounding the film Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace.  For my part, I remember that the film had been heavily advertised, Pepsi cans and snack boxes were adorned with characters from the movie and a certain sense of genuine intrigue was developing within just about everyone.  “Who’s the girl supposed to be?” Or “That must be the bad guy,” we would say, peering at photos on the back of Doritos sacks and Mountain Dew bottles.  I have particularly fond memories of watching the Rosie O’Donnel show, actually; she was one of the many who dedicated her show for a week or more to the ongoing Star Wars phenomenon.  I only had three channels at the time, so I was grateful to see my favorite topic being discussed in-detail on a daily basis.  Thanks to an appearance on said program, I would also fall deeply under the spell of Ms. Natalie Portman, an understandable crush to many; looking back, I can’t help but be in awe of the monumental steps she was making toward her own outstanding career, carried all-the-while under the wing of a powerfully successful franchise.  In the wake of the film’s excitement, some would suggest that EPI was unable to live up to the hype that advertising had created, while other professional critics decried the seemingly formulaic approach to the film.  Yet, no one could deny that Lucas had proved for everyone that he could still tell a hell of a story.

For me, however, the film has almost always been dependent upon the powerful emotions expressed (sometimes less perfectly by the actors) in the music of John Williams.  The music of Episode I is particularly special for me because it was the signature film that sparked my fascination with the SW galaxy, but no doubt that others would cite the music of the earlier films (“the Throne Room,” “The Imperial March,” “Yoda’s Theme,” “the Funeral Pyre,”) or even films unrelated to the series (the music of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, ET, Home Alone, Indiana Jones, to name a few) and all would have been equally affected.  His influence on film, and our very lives, is not unlike that of a favorite book, singer or actor.  Though seemingly distant and all-at-once unrelated, as each becomes the topic of conversation between our family and friends, we can’t help but remember those discussions (and their tributaries) with joy and a deep appreciation.  In fact, the nostalgia I feel when listening to his music is probably the recognition of said appreciation.

As I was saying, though, certain music brings those memories and feelings to life.  I was a kid when EPI came out, so “Duel of the Fates” was often the backdrop for my attempts at Darth Maul’s acrobatics (and larger scale re-enactments that are now hilarious, but definitely embarrassing), for instance.  Yet, as I look back, my favorite has to be the track that immediately follows EPI’s fight theme in the credits: “Anakin’s Theme.”  The piece, lyrical but delicately orchestrated, follows the similar “theme” concept that Williams has used for decades now.  A character’s “theme music” is, in the musical community, part of a mechanism called “leitmotif” (pronounced “light-moteef”); a concept developed by the great composer Richard Wagnar.  Williams, like Wagner, would use leitmotif to introduce and create an atmosphere around Star Wars’ central characters.  Luke, for instance, was introduced with “Luke’s Theme,” in the beginning of A New Hope.  Perhaps, though, you noticed (or atleast recognized unconsciously) that the same melody was introduced repeatedly throughout the original trilogy?  When Luke swings Leia across the chasm in the Death Star, for example, “Luke’s Theme” is heard, albeit briefly.  A certain emotion, a sense of bravery and adventure, has become interlaced with that combination of notes.  The same could be said of the “Imperial March,” which seems to crop-up when even the slightest indication is made that Darth Vader or his stormtroopers are near.

For these reasons, I believe, I’ve come to love the complexity that is “Anakin’s Theme.”  Why?  Well it represents, perhaps, the most complex character of the entire series: a boy destined for greatness, but powerful enough to destroy all that he touches.  So filled with innocence, but tempered with the possibility for utter catastrophe: he’s a gamble.  The music John Williams wrote to express this identity is, likewise, full of possibility but ringing with the over-tones of danger, a certain hesitation that exist because, if he falls, things could go worse than wrong.  Yet, the music goes even further in expressing, with particular passages and motives, Anakin’s love for his mother, and indeed, his compassion toward all beings.  As you listen to the piece, however, you feel “Anakin’s Theme,” become tainted by the lietmotif that has become so synonimous with Star Wars: again, the Imperial March.  Something so powerfully twisted and sinister that, while it inspires love and intrigue in the series, it reminds us all of the cold and mechanical, hollow evil that was Darth Vader and the Empire.

I thought about all of these things that evening, knowing full well that I would probably here none of it the following night.  I was going to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO- not so arguably the best symphony in the world) on Saturday night, but not to listen to Star Wars.  Rather, John Williams would conduct pieces from other composers alongside his own music from the first three Harry Potter films.  While I deeply appreciate the Harry Potter music as well (I have the soundtracks to the first and third movies) I couldn’t help but be disappointed in the fact that I would miss the music that was so deeply a part of me.

Saturday night, attending my first orchestral event, I filed into an elevator in down-town Chicago to take me up to the sixth floor of the Chicago Symphony Center.  As I reached the top (in a room that looked curiously like Palpatine’s Challencor quarters), my friends and I hastened to the auditorium entrance.  Making our way carefully down the rows (it felt as if falling forward would send you over the steeply lined rows and off the balcony), we took in the sounds of the orchestra as it warmed up.  Excited voices continued for some time, but finally the first chair violin stood, struck a few tuning notes, and was seated.  Then, though he was so many feet away, I could see John Williams moving from the side of the stage to his platform.  This was, by all accounts, “pretty cool.”  The music that followed was fantastic, of course, and there were even moments, after the intermission and into the Harry Potter music, where I felt I might be satisfied with the powerful emotions expressed in that music.  Yet, as the show closed, again, I couldn’t help but feel that feeling linger.  John Williams, barely definable from my high balcony seat, waved generously to the crowd, bowing first, then bowing for the orchestra, before he left….

The clapping became louder, though, and people were now standing and cheering.  I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot when Williams suddenly appeared back out on stage, waving and bowing humbly before re-taking the platform for an encore. At this point, I couldn’t help but feel my heart skip a beat.  Could it be?  I wondered!  No…  Instead, the composer, as expressively as anything else he’d conducted yet, burst into a dramatic rendition of the theme to ET.  Again, it was remarkable and thrilling on its own merits, but not what I (or apparently the rest of the crowd) wanted.  As Williams exited once again, the crowd rose to their feet yet another time, and the applause was louder than ever.  The musicians on the stage looked at one another, saying nothing before turning to the wings of the stage, looking on intently…  And then sat down.  The crowd became frenzied.

John Williams, again, entered the spot light, gliding, it seemed, on the affections of his crowd.  Standing at the support bar on his platform, he peered into the audience, teetering, it seemed, on a decision.  Then, nodding to himself, he turned (there was no flipping of pages, this had been forseen) he burst into the “Imperial March” with vigor, bouncing slightly as he swung his arms.  A brief moment of actual yelling and screaming ensued before the crowd became quiet once again so that they could feel the full impact of the music at it hit them.  For me, the effect only came when I finally took my eyes away from the orchestra; the musicians didn’t evoke any kind of emotion when it came to this music, after all.  Instead, I remembered “Anakin’s Theme,” his journey, his fall, and the horror that was Darth Vader: that’s when I got goosebumps.  The concert, for me, was over after the final chord of that piece; he played through a piece (reminiscent of Leia’s theme) from Indiana Jones and also the Sunday Night Football theme (which he played for only the second time that night), but the crowd (and I) were satisfied with the “Imperial March.”

At last, at the prompting of yet another encore, John Williams returned to the stage, but only to tilt his head to the side and lay it upon his hands: it was time for bed, he was saying.  And so, satisfied but never really satisfied, my fellow concert-goers and I left the auditorium to think about what we’d just witnessed.  From the nosebleeds, it’s hard to say that I got the full concert experience: I was there in the same room, yes, and the music was perfect: CD quality and higher at every moment.  Yet, I know that next time, Lord willing, I’ll be in the fifth row so that I can see what the musicians, and more importantly, what John Williams thinks about his music.  His thoughts, I imagine, will be written in his expressions and in the passion of his conducting.  You might say (as I recall that this was actually Thanksgiving weekend) that I’m thankful for a lot of things this year; among them family and friends, of course, but perhaps on a somewhat unconscious level, also for the connection that concert made between what I was given for fantasy as child and what I respect and love now as an adult…  in the music of John Williams.

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