Saturday, March 01, 2014

Robertson conducts John Williams

On the news this morning there was a feature from the United States' ABC about composer John Williams being the most Oscar nominated person alive. Only Walt Disney's 59 nominations exceeds Williams' 49, the latest being for his score to The Book Thief.

As an avid fan of his music my only quibble is that he hasn't won more than his 5 Academy Awards.

I take any opportunity I can to hear his music played live, so of course I booked tickets to hear the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's new artistic director David Robertson conducting Williams' music at the famous Sydney Opera House. February has been bookended by Murray Gold's Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular and now this concert.

Two concerts in a month! I am a lucky boy!

I'm surprised how long it is since I last attended a concert of John Williams' music. Almost two and a half years ago I took Alex to his first concert -  the Sydney Symphony Orchestra celebrating John Williams' music at the Sydney Opera House. That was a big occasion with comedian Shaun Micallef as compère and a costumed crowd.

But the performance itself left me a little underwhelmed, especially after hearing the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's superior performance of many of the same pieces in their home city earlier in the year. I've always felt the Sydney Symphony to be rather elitist and to consider populist music like film scores beneath classical compositions.

The pre-concert talk by Genevieve Lang did nothing to dispel that image. I doubted the conviction in her argument that Williams' music was "real music" and mentally ticked off the constant references to classical greats.

So I wasn't at my most hopeful when I entered the concert hall. My brother Jon was with me, a more recent convert to film scores. We had seats near the front left in an excellent spot for watching the strings section and the conductor. One thing I was thinking was in this concert's favour was that the conductor would be doing the introductions rather than some scripted compère. Unlike comedians, conductors know their music and it was likely that he would have passion for it.

And I was right. Absolutely, wonderfully right. Silver haired American Robertson bounded out on to the stage with energy and a huge grin. This was his program, his orchestra. He was sharing the music that he loved. No distracting videos or special effects, no gimmicks, just informative, but somewhat cheeky, introductions from the conductor followed by energetic, passionate and  precise performances from him and the orchestra.

Though I know all the pieces intimately, it was like hearing the music anew, with a near perfect balance of sound meaning that I could pick out the individual complexities from any part of the orchestra. The Sydney Children's Choir and Gondwana Alumni (the Qantas kids when they grow up?) Choir also did a sterling job of the choral pieces.

The free program had no track listings, to allow Robertson to take the audience on his journey and to spring some surprises, but this is what was played, if memory serves correctly. I'm not going to review individual pieces, because they were all great.

Theme from Jurassic Park, Jaws, Hedwig's Theme, Double Trouble, Harry's Wondrous World (Harry Potter), Raiders of the Lost Ark,


Dry Your Tears Africa (Amistad), Adventures On Earth (ET), Jewish Town and main theme from Schindler's List, Cadillac of the Skies (Empire of the Sun), Star Wars Main Title, Duel of the Fates, Imperial March, Saving Private Ryan, Superman

Many of the pieces I had heard performed live before, some not. Williams' catalogue is so vast that any concert must be but a small subset of his works. I would have chosen some differently, but I was happy enough to be swept up by Robertson's choices. Some of the choices and on my less frequently listened list, but heard live they sound so much better. Jaws was menacing in the extreme, while I could feel the horrors unleashed upon the Jews during Schindler's List. And so many memories were evoked by all the other pieces that I cannot describe them all here.

I think David Robertson's humour, knowledge and energy will do more to encourage a deeper interest in orchestral music than special effects or simply comparing everything to past masters. I am certainly looking forward to discovering what other music, old or new, he will be sharing with us over his tenure.

So, bravo and well done! The conductor, orchestra and choir deserved the standing ovation they received.

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