Film Music

  • John Williams Celebrates His 90th Birthday!

    Today marks the birthday of one of the most well-known film composers of our time, John Williams.  Williams early days as a jazz pianist and performer led him to Hollywood where he would record with the likes of Marty Paich, Andre Previn, Stanley Wilson (performing and writing music for M Squad) Henry Mancini (an exquisite performance can be heard on "Dreamsville" from Peter Gunn), and Elmer Bernstein (he is the soloist for that gorgeous theme in To Kill a Mockingbird) among others.  Those connections would eventually get him some TV scoring gigs and eventually he would move into feature scoring.

    Williams' comedy films in the 1960s (How to Steal a Million, Bachelor Flat, Fitzwilly) owe a great deal to Mancini's style and approach.  It was during that decade that he would pen some iconic themes for Irwin Allen's TV Series' Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants.  While his score for The Reivers (1969) is an excellent exploration of Americana and whimsy and earn him an Oscar nod, I have always felt that his work for 1965's None But the Brave  a rather engaging work.  It was the former though that would begin to open even more doors for Williams moving forward as it would get the notice of a young director named Steven Spielberg.

    In that period towards the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, Williams was attached to musical projects, the most known of those being his work on Fiddler On The Roof (which just got another 3-disc special edition release last year from La-La Land Records).  His music was also part of one of the most notorious Super Bowl cutaways when the game ran long and NBC cutaway for its presentation of Heidi!

    For a while, Williams would become the go-to disaster movie composer with successes for the films The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (both for Irwin Allen).  One might also think of Jaws flirting a bit in that genre but even with the surprise success of that film, Williams' other projects were gaining him attention from another Mark Rydell film, The Cowboys (1971) that is a full Copland-esque furtherance of Williams' Americana adaptations into his own work.  His avantgarde score for Altman's Images (1972) is the closest to his contemporary concert style that would appear for some time in his film work.  And while the adaptation of the popular novel Black Sunday (1976) was perhaps the film that was supposed to get him noticed more (the finale of that film's score has surprising similarities to what Williams would do for Star Wars the next year), it was his work first for Close Encounters of the Third Kind that captured the imagination first (there was even a disco version of the theme as a 45 rpm bonus with the soundtrack release!).  After the success of Star Wars, Williams  began a stream of amazing scores from 1978's iconic Superman to excellent scores for The Fury and the following year's Dracula.  The bomb that was Spielberg's 1941 could have ended the run, but Williams was already working on The Empire Strikes Back which would further raise his profile that really established his work from that moment on.  It would lead to his being asked to become the Conductor for the Boston Pops, succeeding the orchestra's long-standing leader Arthur Fiedler, a move that seemed controversial at the time but which inadvertently led to a gradual increase and acceptance of film music in first pops concerts and in the concert hall overall.  No one at that time would have thought the orchestra would someday be performing original orchestrations to picture for sold out concerts!

    The 1980s would be full of both great hits like the now iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980) and E.T., The Extraterrestrial (1982) and some misfires (Yes, Giorgio!; Heartbeeps).  Additional Star Wars and Indiana Jones films would continue to be associated with him well into the next century with each new score building on those of the past.  There are some interesting subtle works during this time like The River, the moving Empire of the Sun, or the more sublime The Accidental Tourist, Always, or gentle Stanley and Iris.  It was the decade of his first music for the Olympics and he worked on both small concert pieces, such as the gorgeous Hymn to New England, and even works like the Tuba Concerto.  As the 1990s began, he would end up writing a comedic score for what seemed to be a little holiday movie, Home Alone.  He would return to score the sequel as well creating a couple of Christmas choral pieces that have had some life in the concert hall.

    While Hook (1991) proved to be an uneven Spielberg film, Williams still managed to provide one of his finest scores of gorgeous themes and action writing.  Besides jumping into another Spielberg franchise with Jurassic Park, he also provided scores for other directors expanding his dramatic score catalog with music for JFK, Far and Away, Nixon, Angela's Ashes, The Patriot and more.   This included his moving score for Schindler's List and an equally moving, yet often restrained score for Saving Private Ryan.  Along the way he wrote an achingly beautiful set of themes for the underrated remake of Sabrina; another interesting dramatic work for Sleepers; and recalled his days working with Mahalia Jackson to provide Gospel/spiritual-flavored bluesy music for Rosewood.  A variety of short works for orchestra, more Olympics pieces and concert work also began to appear more often.

    As the new century dawned, Williams was tapped to provide the score for yet another blockbuster franchise for Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone.  With this work, he now provided the soundtrack for yet another generation of young film goers.  Of course, there were also a host of Spielberg films to score during this time, many more on the dramatic side; and the three Star Wars prequels also kept him busy.  Memoirs of A Geisha was one of the unique highlights of this period.  Cellist Yo-Yo Ma would further record several other concert pieces, including a concerto, of Williams work after this as well.  

    In the last ten years, his output may seem to have slowed from others in the industry, but he still managed to complete the final Star Wars film scores further building on the early scores and creating a massive 9-film, integrated score for a franchise by a single composer.

    While this tribute cannot possibly be exhaustive, I thought it would be nice to honor John Williams today on this, another birthday milestone.  His music captured my attention as a youth and inspired me, and no doubt thousands of others, to discover classical and film music and even to learn to play an instrument!

    For another wonderful tribute, please also check out Roger Hall's site:  A 90th Birthday Tribute to John T. Williams -- .




  • Williams in Berlin


    The Berlin Concert
    Berlin Philharmonic/John Williams
    Bruno Delepelaire, cello.
    Deutsche Grammophon B0034852-02
    Disc One: Total Time:  50:07
    Disc Two: Total Time:  57:58
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    February 8th is the 90th birthday of film music maestro John Williams.  His music is among some of the most recognizable thematic material of the latter 20th Century.  Over the past few years, he has been honored with special releases of his music from the Boston Pops with Keith Lockhart and the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel.  Williams himself has released some newer albums as well, most recently with Anne-Sophie Mutter, who also appeared in Deutsche Grammophon's recording of his concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2020.

    Film music and the Berlin Philharmonic are not entirely synonymous which made the October 2021 concert featuring John Williams a truly special event.  While the orchestra had performed concert music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and even been conducted by Andre Previn (who attended their concerts as a young child), this was the first time a film composer and conductor took the podium in a program of their own work.  No doubt after his triumphant concert in Vienna, this was a logical next step.  The BPO is one of the world’s great orchestras and are well-steeped in the idioms that inform much of Williams’ music.  Even so, the music is not without its challenges and this program is filled with a great variety of his film music and a surprising inclusion of the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra.  The trumpet section even switched out their horns for brighter American instruments which again make the orchestra sound a little different than those familiar with their classical programming.  Throughout the program, one can pick up on the great attention to every detail in the music from accents and dynamics to exquisite phrasing and clean execution.  The percussion section has a nice balance against the rest of the orchestra as well which helps those parts come out better.

    Unlike Deutsche Grammophon’s release of the Vienna concert, this release is a memento recording that includes introductions by Williams spread throughout the album.  This approach is something those who have attended his Film Nights in Boston and LA are familiar.  While there is some duplication from other recent Williams concert programs on the label, there are plenty of new items here to enjoy as well, some with subtle surprises.

    After an enthusiastic applause (separately indexed), things quite down for the opening Olympic Fanfare and Theme.  It is a finely-paced performance that captures the richness of the hall and orchestra with some fabulous horn playing throughout.  Applause burst forth almost before the last chord, but fortunately DG has edited things to help minimize this.  The excerpts from Close Encounters are quite stunning in this performance.  Accents are punched well and the dynamic range is even more pronounced and nuanced than Williams’ VPO performance.  The more avantgarde style of this music is brought out more as well which makes the big romantic theme moment all the more moving when it suddenly appears.  This is also one of the most in-tune performances of this work whose upper string writing can skew sideways from time to time.  Additional unique colors in the piece also seem to come out more making this one of the first highlights from the release.  The suite from Far and Away is an interesting choice but it gives the orchestra a challenge to create some Irish stylings which they do with great aplomb.  What is also nice about this suite is that it gets to show off different aspects of the orchestra and requires some great rhythmic precision.  Next up are the first concert performances recorded by Williams of selections from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (“Hedwig’s Theme”—notwithstanding the studio version for solo violin, “Nimbus 2000”—a fine woodwind feature, and “Harry’s Wondrous World”—with some quite interesting ritards and shaping of this piece).  The first part of the program closes with the familiar Jurassic Park theme in a breezy reading, and the Superman march.

    The second part of the program on disc two focuses on music from two of the big multi-picture franchises.  Three selections from the adventures of Indiana Jones kick things off with the “Scherzo for Motorcycle” serving like a little overture.  This version appears to have a different ending from previously-recorded versions.  For contrast, we move to the beautiful “Marion’s Theme” and then of course “Raider’s March” (which also includes the central “Marion’s Theme” as well).  [In his introduction to the music, he announces he is off to LA after the concert to finish the score for the fifth film.]  To give the brass a break, Williams next moves to the one non-film piece on the program, the moving Elegy for Cello and Orchestra in a fine performance by Bruno DelepelaireThen we are off to space.  Among the more familiar Star Wars choices (“Yoda’s Theme”, “Throne Room & Finale”—which was part of the Skywalker Symphony release; and two of the three encores: “Princess Leia’s Theme”—some stunning high string playing id exquisite here; and the “Imperial March”—to grateful cheers) is his first recording of “The Adventures of Han” from Solo: A Star Wars Story which Williams premiered in Boston at the time of the film’s forthcoming release.  These familiar pieces have their own nuances that make them engaging interpretations that stand along others on disc.  The penultimate encore is one Williams likes to use a lot in concert: the “Flying Theme” from E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

    Fans will add this as a must to their collection, but this is another of those finite moments of excellence and recognition for Williams’ music by another world-class orchestra.  Their unique ensemble sound adds to a touch of freshness for even the most familiar of pieces here making them their own in really wonderful ways.  The concert does not feel like some straight reading of lesser material but reveals a commitment by the orchestra to put their own stamp on these pieces the way they do with any other repertoire.  Some might find that not to their liking, but there are so many different things that pop out of the texture throughout that it often feels like these are new pieces all their own.  Most impressive is that the stamina of the orchestra is equally remarkable.  With the past year making public concerts a real privilege, The Berlin Concert gives all of us a chance to hear this music as if we were lucky enough to be there ourselves.  It is obvious that the Berlin audience was thoroughly enrapt by the performances as well, you can almost sense a collective “WOW”.  The commentary is tracked separately to be skipped if one prefers.  A Blu-Ray edition of the concert is also available.  The release comes as Williams celebrates his 90th (!) birthday but is a gift to music lovers everywhere.