On Saturday, October 16, 2021, the last of the three concerts performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of maestro John Williams was held in Berlin, with a program dedicated almost exclusively to his film work. A concert that was recorded to be broadcast on the orchestra’s digital portal, and which had one of the biggest final ovations we have ever witnessed.
Previously we brought you a summary of the concert on Thursday 14, by Gorka Oteiza (read more), and now we bring you a new, complete, and detailed article by our colleague and collaborator Coque Cano, exclusively for SoundTrackFest.
Occasionally something becomes much more than what it looks like. Undoubtedly, the two appearances (whoever wants to see religious connotations in this phrase, go ahead) of John Williams in Europe before and after the pandemic, have been more than just concerts.
What happened in Vienna was historic for two reasons, although I understand that the second one had a special significance for the maestro himself. First, because it had been 22 years since European fans had been able to enjoy his presence in these latitudes. I personally attended his last concert at the Barbican Center in London in 1998 with his beloved London Symphony Orchestra and I did not think at all that until 2020 that would be his last appearance. And secondly, because it was in Vienna where the music of John Williams broke down a cultural wall that until then, had kept film music away from the great orchestras and musical temples of the old continent.
And the wall fell in the capital of Austria and the capital of Music, with the Vienna Philharmonic and in the mythical Musikverein, not without certain concessions that proved to be necessary and even right for the time and venue in which they took place. As is well known, Williams recorded shortly before a fabulous album entitled “Across the stars” with his esteemed Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the most prestigious violinists on the planet, to whom he has been a great friend since she was married to the conductor and composer Andre Previn, who was one of the New York maestro’s best friends.
From that collaboration arose in large part what we experienced in Vienna, where almost half of the concert were pieces from his film repertoire that Williams had arranged for solo violin. A concession of pure gratitude on the part of the composer towards what he considers one of the best orchestras in the world, which was able to perform his most popular music, albeit partially with a filter of musical pedigree more in order with the venue.
Curiously then I thought that this was the farewell of an almost nonagenarian John Williams, especially because of the world’s socio-sanitary situation…and again I was wrong. Berlin has turned out to be the next stop and a third one has already been announced at La Scala in Milan. Three of the great temples of music in Europe in just three years and with the feeling that something more is yet to come. Maybe Spain, after all, he already said when accepting the Prince of Asturias award that he wanted to come, and remember that recently another of his leading soloists, the pianist Gloria Cheng, premiered his Scherzo for piano and orchestra in another mythical stage as the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, with Marc Timón conducting the Orquesta Simfónica del Vallès (you can read the special article here). Let’s cross our fingers…
And if Vienna was historic, Berlin was not far behind, confirming that Williams’ music no longer needs to break down walls and that it walks the Olympus of Music, seducing with its magic the once “impenetrable” Europe. It was a party without guest artists (with all the admiration for Mutter, by the way, present at the concert as one more fan), with a program focused on his film work in its most recognizable format.
Few surprises, however, beyond the elegy for cello and orchestra, whose origin can be found in his score for “Seven Years in Tibet”, with the solo cello by Bruno Delepelaire, the arrangements for wind section of the theme dedicated to Nimbus 2000 from “Harry Potter” or the choice of Han Solo’s theme composed for Ron Howard‘s film in which Williams only composed this theme for the hero (who coincidentally lacked his own theme throughout the “Star Wars” saga), with the rest of the score falling to a very intoned John Powell.
As a curiosity, his other collaboration with Ron Howard (the masterful “Far and away”) was also present, and together with the “Olympic Fanfare and theme” for the Los Angeles ’84 games, were the other pleasant surprises of the night. The rest of the program and the encores were made up of a repertoire of “hits”, with several of the most popular and representative themes in the career of John Williams, recovering for the occasion “Superman”, forgotten in Vienna and also in the concert finally conducted by Dirk Brossé leading the LSO in 2018, before the unexpected sickness of John Williams.
In the section of notable absences would be “Jaws” or “Schindler’s list”, the latter probably very meditated by the maestro.
The concert began with the Olympic fanfare for the Los Angeles games, the most representative of those composed by Williams for different editions of the Olympic games, both summer and winter, all of them magnificent (the one for the Atlanta games entitled “Summon the heroes”, for example, I was fortunate to listen to it in London two years after its premiere).
In any case, a lavish beginning and with an ironic point, given that Williams’ detractors (some of them coming from the wrongly called “cultured music”) have labeled the composer as a “fanfare maker”. A declaration of intentions that also made it clear from the first note that the Berliner was “on fire”, devoted to the cause and demonstrating why the maestro considers it the best orchestra in the world (something he insisted on two occasions).
At the end of this first theme, the audience broke into applause, something that happened throughout the concert after each and every one of the pieces that were played.
Then followed the, for many, his great masterpiece: “Close encounters of the third kind”. If in Vienna it was the best at an interpretative level, the Berlin Philharmonic was not far behind and rivaled in virtuosity with its Viennese counterpart, although it seems to have improved quite a lot with respect to the interpretation of the piece in the concerts of Thursday and Friday (I attended the one on Saturday, the only one of the three that was recorded in its entirety and the one that will most likely be edited). The orchestra filled the piece with nuances, shining especially in the atonal passages and in the final resolution.
The third piece was an impressive suite from “Far and away”, preceded by the longest explanation of the evening by John Williams. His affection for this delightful score is palpable, and it tested the Berliner’s state of grace, leaving what, for me, was one of the most radiant moments of the evening. Although I do not remember the maestro saying anything about it, a heartfelt tribute to Paddy Moloney, leader of the Chieftains (mythical Irish band with whom he recorded this soundtrack), who died just three days earlier, at the age of 83, flew over the audience.
Within this first part of the concert there was room for a wide sample of his work for the “Harry Potter” saga, although it was a missed opportunity to hear something of the prisoner of Azkaban, as it was focused on the well-known “Hedwig’s Theme” and the final coda “Harry’s wondrous world”, as well as the already mentioned arrangement for winds of the theme of the Nimbus 2000 (by the way, very interesting, with a constant dialectic between the different instruments of this section), all of them present in the first chapter of the saga. Obviously it was a Harry Potter party, a modern classic of unquestionable musical category.
Before the break it was the turn of the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park”, with the suite that is already part of his inevitable concert repertoire. Simply perfect, the piece and the interpretation. An unbeatable way to reach the break, very deserved and necessary for the maestro, as he was seen with more desire than strength, with an evident drop in mobility compared to Vienna. His effort and dedication were truly commendable. He deserved each and every one of the ovations that the audience gave him in a night to remember.
After chatting with the many friends we met there (many of whom we only meet in this type of events), it was time to return to the interior of the hall, and I take this opportunity to highlight the impressive acoustics and architecture of the current home of the Berliner Philharmoniker, inaugurated on January 6, 2009 by Sir Simon Rattle. The perfect setting to enjoy the magic of John Williams.
The second part of the concert opened again in style, with the much-missed “Superman”, which seemed to have lost its indispensability in the maestro’s concerts. Accustomed to the original version of the London Symphony Orchestra, the best that can be said is that the Berliner mimicked it, offering an outstanding interpretation of the hero’s march. A masterpiece that could be the subject of a separate concert, to which this time Williams reserved a prominent place in the program. Another of the great moments of the evening.
And from one hero to another. Indiana Jones had a triple presence in the concert, with three pieces that demonstrate the composer’s mastery of all the registers that film music can offer. First he conducted the sparkling “Scherzo for motorcycle and orchestra”, one of the best action themes of his career (with an ironic scherzo-like touch), which here surprised by the introduction of a series of unpublished variations, which raised even more the quality of the playful piece, superbly punctuated by the musicians. This was followed by the new concert version of “Marion’s Theme”, beautifully performed, and a perfect sample of John Williams’ unsurpassable romantic vein. And obviously the part dedicated to our favorite archaeologist ended with the everlasting “Raiders march”, another of the great agitators of an ecstatic audience at this the feast prepared by the maestro. An impeccable choice that speaks for itself of the quality that film music can reach and its value to be interpreted with all the honors by orchestras as great as this Berlin Philharmonic.
Still with the excitement provoked by his more adventurous staves, Williams gave us one of the delicatessen that regularly jellies a career that goes far beyond the pomp and circumstance attributed to him. The elegy derived from his score for Jean Jaques Annaud’s film “Seven Years in Tibet” is a work that is easily related to other masterpieces such as “Schindler’s List” or “Memoirs of a geisha”. For the occasion, the interpretation of the first soloist cello of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Bruno Delepelaire, had nothing to envy to the one originally offered by the mediatic Yo-Yo Ma. An authentic jewel played with delicacy by the young Parisian musician, to whom a grateful Williams paid a heartfelt tribute by coming down from the lectern to applaud him together with the rest of the audience and the orchestra. One more sign of the maestro’s deep admiration and respect for the musicians.
And to finish with the official part of the program, we could not miss the presence of the saga of sagas: Star Wars. Here he went off on a tangent by including Han’s theme, the only one he composed for the film “Solo, a Star Wars story”, dedicated to the origins of the character. A dynamic theme that reinforced the feeling that John Williams prepared a full-fledged “adventurous concert” for us. There is no doubt that it is a great theme, very much in line with the rest of the saga, and listening to it live was priceless. It is clear that with his music we could do 20 different concerts and all of them would be a festival, but we can only praise the inclusion of this sensational one from “The Adventures of Han”.
As with the section dedicated to Indy, with Star Wars he programmed three pieces of different tone, the second being one of the noblest themes he has composed, the one dedicated to the iconic Yoda for “The Empire Strikes Back”, which is part of what is probably the best score composed by Williams for film. Emotional interlude before the great final coda with the Elgarian “Throne room and end title” from the first Star Wars, which left the audience with the same face of amazement and feeling of having experienced something indescribable, which millions of viewers had at the premiere of the film. I can’t think of a better piece to conclude a concert program. And once again the interpretation was full of strength and conviction in a theme to remember.
If it had ended there, the concert would have gotten an A++ without even blinking, but the best was yet to come, and I’m not just talking about the encores.
But focusing on them, it was obvious that a John Williams concert could not forget E.T., so the first of the two encores he gave us was the “Flying Theme” (obviously an “Adventures On Earth” would have been too much at that stage of the concert). We are going to use clichés because the occasion deserves it: Williams and the Berliner made the audience fly, reaching that place where dreams dwell, provoking a catharsis of collective and generational memory that only the maestro’s music can achieve. Audience, composer, and orchestra were one and the machine of past memories and generator of futures worked like clockwork.
However, the honorable mention came with the second and last encore of the night, the now customary and inevitable musical farewell in recent John Williams’ concerts: “The Imperial March”. Over the years the popularity of this piece, which was actually composed for the character of Darth Vader in the sequel to the founding title, has even made it as well known as the central theme of the galactic saga itself, so that thanks to its iconic charge and strong martial character, it has become the perfect climax, the great and apotheosis ending that everyone awaits and embraces with madness. To say it didn’t disappoint is an understatement and it doesn’t matter if Williams was already exhausted because the blessed musicians went for it as if it was the last piece they were going to play in their career.
The ovation was thunderous, Williams conquered Berlin and Berlin conquered Williams. The German capital, which knows something about fallen walls, proved that not even the remains of that imaginary wall I was talking about at the beginning were left, and that the most recognizable and popular John Williams was not only welcome, but essential to understand one of the most brilliant pages in the history of recent music.
The maestro received the applause on stage for about 10 minutes, and in fair correspondence with the historic moment something unprecedented happened: 20 minutes more after his withdrawal to the dressing room, the public remained standing giving a huge ovation, thanking him for all he has given us, showing him that he is at the height of the great geniuses of music, that cinema has been the best vehicle to express himself, and that the keys to Olympus are his. Let La Scala in Milan get ready.
Article by Coque Cano
Pictures by Pedro Prados and Gorka Oteiza