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Classical Connection review: Nov. 12, Fort Wayne Philharmonic

For the second time this year, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic honored American composer, conductor, and arranger John Williams, who was born on February 8, 1932.

Yes, the orchestra has joined many in celebrating Williams' 90th birthday. Following the Philharmonic's March 26 concert, conducted by Andrew Constantine, there was a special screening of Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" at the Foellinger Theatre in September (with Philharmonic musicians playing Williams' musical score instead of using the soundtrack recording). Then, on Nov. 12 at the Goldstine Performing Arts Center, there was another tribute concert conducted by Caleb Young (former Philharmonic associate conductor).

Known for his energetic and enthusiastic conducting style, Caleb Young has served for a couple of years as an assistant to John Williams and gained insights into the composer/conductor's work.

One significant thing, Young told the audience, is that Williams has been working on a new "Indiana Jones" film score for Spielberg and he has said this will be his final score. It is remarkable, of course, that Williams has continued working on such scores after marking his 90th birthday earlier this year.

This latest concert began with Williams "Tribute to the Film Composer," a four and one-half minutes medley of very short excerpts from a variety of films, including "Casablanca," "Titanic," "The Pink Panther," "Doctor Zhivago," "Rocky," "The Godfather," and some of Williams own scores.

Williams prepared this medley for the 2002 Academy Awards. It is a very colorful and showy work, which was splendidly performed by the Philharmonic under Young. It was amazing to this writer that so many of the tunes, even in such abbreviated form, were clearly recognizeable.

In 1977, Williams composed one of his more imaginative and unique scores, that for Steven Spielberg's amazing science fiction epic, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." This is the film that used groundbreaking special effects to depict close encounters with flying saucers and extraterrestrials. The opening minutes are quite remarkable, given the complexities of the score in depicting the astonishing spacecraft and their effects on a variety of folks in the U.S.

Richard Dreyfuss's character in particular was led to build a reproduction in his backyard of the Devil's Tower, where the ships ultimately congregate. The challenges to the musicians in this work are considerable and it was a tribute to Young that he was able to prepare the Philharmonic players for their excellent performance.

Young narrated much of the program and he noted that John Williams was influenced by a number of musical sources. Among his influences was the score for Billy Wilder's 1950 black and white drama, "Sunset Boulevard," by Franz Waxman (1906-1967). This is the film in which a dead man, Joe Gillis (portrayed by William Holden) narrates the bizarre story of a former screen star, Norma Desmond (portrayed by Gloria Swanson). She lives with a curious man (portrayed by Erich von Stroheim), who serves as her butler and chauffeur, but is actually her husband.

When Joe Gillis first meets Norma Desmond, he soon recognizes her and says, "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be big." Norma replies, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Waxman's score is a lush late romantic work that perfectly suits the bizarre story and settings, eventually leading to Norma murdering Joe, after she had befriended the struggling writer. Young used the same arrangement from the score for "Sunset Boulevard" that was featured in the RCA Victor album devoted to Franz Waxman's scores, performed by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London. It was wonderful to finally hear a live performance of this music, capably played by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.

Another work that influenced John Williams was the symphonic suite "The Planets," by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), which was composed between 1914 and 1917.

In particular, Williams mirrored portions of the opening movement, "Mars -- The Bringer of War," a turbulent and frightening piece that was actually composed BEFORE the First World War. Young noted Holst's use of an ostinato in "Mars," which was clearly reflected by the "Imperial March" (also known as Darth Vadar's theme) in the first of the "Star Wars." The Philharmonic played the march immediately after playing "Mars" and this provided a good example of how Williams was influenced or inspired by the British composer's music. In the march, one could clearly hear how Williams has used the brass instruments. It was a very strong and impressive performance.

Young said that Williams has also been a very fine arranger. A good example is the 1971 adaptation he did of the Broadway musical "Fiddler on the Roof" by Jerry Bock (1928-2010). Williams prepared an extended medley of the music used in the film version of the popular musical starring Topol.

This delightful work showcased the considerable talents of the Philharmonic's associate concertmaster, Johanna Bourkova-Morunov. There was one section where the solo violinist really had an opportunity to display her virtuoso abilities.

Music from one of John Williams' most popular film scores, "E.T.," closed the first half of the concert. The music for the 1982 Spielberg film includes one of the more memorable scenes, in which the children ride on bicycles in an attempt to rescue the little extraterrestrials from scientists who wish to "study him." Those familiar with the film will remember that E.T. actually helps the children and their bikes to "fly" and successfully avoid the adults in the story. This is such wonderful and moving music and it was given an excellent performance.

After intermission, the rest of the concert featured only works by John Williams. First of all, there was music from Chris Columbus' 2001 film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Williams successfully provided appropriately mysterious and enchanting music for the film adaptation of the J. K. Rowling popular novel contrasting good and evil magical forces.

One of the more memorable moments in Spielberg's 1981 film "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is his theme for Marion, portrayed by Karen Allen. This gave the Philharmonic strings a chance to play a really lovely and sensitive piece that contrasts with some of the more dramatic moments of the first of the Indiana Jones films.

A rare comedy from Steven Spielberg was his 1979 film "1941," which was inspired by the rumors that Japanese forces were going to attack Los Angeles in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor. This film was initially a critical and box office failure, but it later gained in popularity and appreciation. Caleb Young chose the march featured in the score as one of John Williams' better marches and dedicated the spirited performance to members and veterans of the military, just a day after Veteran's Day.

In 1992, Williams wrote the music for a Ron Howard film about Irish immigrants who came to America in the 1890s, "Far and Away." This includes some of the more spirited and folksy tunes that the composer has written, particularly an Irish jig that is quite catchy. It was a special treat to hear a different side of Williams' musical work in a very fine performance.

Certainly the big highlight of the evening was hearing the suite that Williams prepared for concerts from the first of the "Star Wars" films to be released by George Lucas (in 1977). The opening moments of the suite are taken from the early part of the film and is probably the most striking and most familiar of Williams' compositions. It was a wonderful performance of some very popular and enjoyable music. Little wonder that the audience gave Young and the musicians a great standing ovation.

The concert concluded with the popular march from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." This was a wonderful way to end a very enjoyable program. Many of us look forward to the release, probably next year, of the final "Indiana Jones" film, which will again feature a score by John Williams.

For the record, Williams' first feature film score was "Daddy-O" in 1958 and at that time he was billed as "Johnny Williams" and he continued to use that name on film credits for another ten years. He made quite an impression, of course, with his 1975 score for Spielberg's terrifying feature "Jaws."

Little wonder that veteran director Alfred Hitchcock soon asked Williams to write the music for what proved to be Hitchcock's final feature film, "Family Plot." Williams work continues to impress many and it is remarkable that he has continued to work after turning 90.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.