On Saturday, January 18 and Sunday, January 19, 2020, two very special concerts were held at the Musikverein in Vienna (Austria), entitled ‘A tribute to John Williams’, where John Williams conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker / Vienna Philharmonic, with the participation of Anne-Sophie Mutter, to perform a program completely dedicated to the work of Williams, with special focus on the pieces included in the collaboration album between Williams and Mutter released in 2019, ‘Across the Stars’.
These were two highly anticipated concerts, since they had initially been scheduled for October 2018, and due to illness of the composer, had to be canceled.
It is clear that the Vienna Philharmonic did not want to make their debut in the world of film music with any other conductor leading orchestra, hence, since Williams was not available, they decided to cancel the concerts (however the Royal Albert Hall, which had another concert scheduled a few days before, also with Williams, went ahead giving the baton to conduct the LSO to Dirk Brossé).
Therefore, the expectation for these two new concerts was high, as not only had been more than 20 years since the last time John Williams conducted his music in Europe, but people were hoping that last-minute complications would not happen again. Fortunately, days before the concerts were held, we could see images posted on the Facebook of the Musikverein and of the Vienna Philharmonic (follow link-1, link-2 & link-3), where a smiling John Williams was shown during the rehearsals, for the tranquility of the public.
Both concerts were held quite early, taking into account the usual time of other film music concerts: at 15:30h on Saturday 18th and at 11:00h on Sunday 19th. The place chosen was the Golden Hall – Großer Saal of the majestic Musikverein, a place we know very well, as we have seen it on many occasions on TV with the New Year’s Concert that is broadcast on Jan, 1 from Vienna.
Interestingly, the majestic venue was covered with snow on Saturday 18th, generating a somewhat magical atmosphere, which added to the expectation of the event. Upon arriving at the place, it was striking to see several people elegantly dressed at the door with a sign that read “Tickets Needed”, ready to take the last opportunity to attend the concert.
The tickets, which went on sale months before, sold out almost immediately. With prices between 8 € for standing tickets (at the bottom of the gallery) and 240 € for the seats (read news), the sale started on October 22, 2019, preferentially for members, and also for those people who had bought a ticket for the concert canceled in 2018. A detail very much appreciated, since the membership subscription that many people acquired only for those concerts, had already expired. A few days later, on October 24th, the remaining tickets were available for the general public, and sold out in a few hours.
But let’s go back to the concert. Once inside the Musikverein, and after going up the stairs and arriving at the Golden Hall, the feeling was quite special and at the same time very familiar, having seen the place so many times in concerts from the comfort of our houses. In the room, there were people selling the concert program for 4.7 €, being this a booklet that gave information about the performers and the pieces, which unfortunately was only in German. Given the special character of these concerts, and the large number of people who came from abroad, the right thing would have been to have an edition that at least was also in English.
Since I was able to attend both concerts, Saturday and Sunday, this article will try to collect both in a unified way, as they had the same program, and the performance, although some slight improvement could be appreciated on Sunday, it was very similar, being both of great quality.
Indicate that the place where I was sitting in both days was totally different. In the first concert, I was in the patio, in the front rows, and in the second concert, I was up on the balcony, very close to the stage, thus having a very clear vision of all the musicians of the orchestra and the instruments that were being played in every moment, being also able to see maestro Williams almost face to face, giving all kinds of very precise and very detailed indications.
And I’m going to stop for a moment to comment on the way John Williams conducts, from the point of view of a person who does not have conducting skills, being only appreciations that could be observed from the indications that the maestro gave to the orchestra, and the responses they generated accordingly.
It is impressive to see John Williams conduct for almost two and a half hours with such strength, vitality, and energy, from the beginning to the end, without a single moment of weakness. It is amazing to see how he collects the ‘crescendo’ of the string section with circular movements of his arms, how he points with the baton or with the fingers of his left hand marking the entrance of single instruments or complete sections, how he lifts the baton vertically to set the rhythm and ask for more intensity, how he brings the index finger of the left hand to his lips or gently lowers the same hand with the palm looking down to request a lower sound or to indicate a smooth passage, or how he stares into the eyes of the musicians and raises his eyebrows to indicate… ‘Beware, you’re next!’ A wide repertoire of expressions, forged over the years, that allow music to flow from one section of the orchestra to another, and coalesce in one under the supervision of the maestro, causing that despite having the music many layers and nuances, this makes it sound like an indivisible piece; as if it could not have been conceived in any other way!
Another aspect to highlight was the great respect that was felt in the room, where a sepulchral silence prevailed during the interpretation of the pieces, silence as I have not seen in any other concert. It seemed that the audience did not want to miss a single detail of the music that was being played, and proof of this was that until Williams did not lower the baton, ending each piece, the audience did not move a single muscle to start applauding, to cheer the maestro, or to stand up, in one of the many standing ovations that were offered throughout the concert (I think I counted more than 10 between both halves). It is clear that the public who was in Vienna was a very special audience, who perfectly knew about the maestro’s work, and was very prepared and committed.
The first applause of the night came when the Vienna Philharmonic entered the room sharp and on time. After taking their seats, a silence was felt, and then the magical moment came when John Williams appeared on stage from a door on the right side, making the whole room raise to dedicate a broad applause and a strong standing ovation; a show of affection, for being able to finally see him, after the unfortunate failed attempt of October 2018.
After greeting the audience with an expression of gratitude, looking on both sides of a full house, and after bowing, John Williams turned around, stepped on the platform, and pushed aside the chair that had been placed there in case he wanted to sit down (a chair that was removed a bit later), to then lift the baton and start.
The concert started with the musical magic and the evocative melody of the theme The Flight to Neverland from “Hook”, where the whole orchestra brought color, luminosity, and intensity to the piece, in a true declaration of intentions of quality and commitment that we were going to be able to enjoy throughout the concert. A wonderful choice to start the concert, and to prepare the public for what was to come.
As it happened throughout the concert, every time a piece ended there was an intense applause in the room, often accompanied by a standing ovation, that John Williams corresponded with a ‘Thank You’ that we could not hear but we could read on his lips.
Then, languid and enigmatic violins gave a soft start to the piece “Excerpts from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, making clear the mysterious nature of the theme. Following, an intense blast of the whole orchestra gave way to the wonderful development of the suite, where more obscure and disturbing passages were integrated, with the already known colorful motif of 5 notes which represents the dialogue with the aliens, evolving throughout the piece, until it explodes in a succession of melodic and symphonic passages, taking the music to its fascinating final climax. A wonderful suite and a wonderful performance, which was reciprocated by a standing ovation from the entire hall.
After these first two pieces, we could see that the virtuosity and fame of the Vienna Philharmonic are well deserved. In addition, the symbiosis between Williams and the orchestra was perfect, and the interpretation we were witnessing, left no doubt about the great quality of the concert that we had ahead of us.
John Williams took the microphone for the first time to make a brief introduction in German, where he precisely indicated that he did not speak German and that if we did not mind, he would address the audience in English. This comment, which was welcomed with laughter and applause, was followed by Williams’ presentation of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the great protagonists of the concert.
Anne-Sophie Mutter made an appearance on stage wearing a long, deep blue nightdress, which stood out over the dark tones of the musicians on the stage, and she stepped to the left of the maestro, where after greeting the audience, began playing Hedwig’s Theme from “Harry Potter”.
As expected, the concert included many pieces from the album ‘Across the Stars’, which Williams and Mutter recorded last year, and which contains a selection of works that Williams wanted to highlight/rescue from his career, with arrangements specially made by the composer for the violinist.
Mutter, showed an impressive virtuosity throughout the whole piece, commanding her Stradivarius 1710 violin, making clear her great expertise with the instrument, as well as the multiple applicable techniques and the uncountable sounds that could be extracted from it.
Then, a delicate piano started Theme from “Sabrina” that gave way to a delicious violin solo, which would later be joined by all the accompaniment of the orchestra, providing a sound characteristic of the golden age of Hollywood, which this great piece manages to convey to the perfection. A magnificent performance of the orchestra and of the soloist, and majestic conducting of Williams (like he did during the rest of the concert).
After a brief start of the strings section, Mutter continued the following theme, the lesser-known Donnybrook Fair from “Far and Away”, with a marked Irish character, where the dynamism and speed of the violin, permeated the interpretation of the rest of orchestra’s instruments.
Then we could listen to the last piece for Mutter (in this first part of the concert), the joking, mocking, and agile, Devil’s Dance from “The Witches of Eastwick”, which started with a violin loaded with witchcraft on the fingers of the soloist, to later give way to a contagious rhythm that was transmitted perfectly from both the violin and the orchestra. Let’s especially highlight a moment in the middle of the suite, where the big entrance of the whole orchestra, with the harmonies that were achieved from all the sections, with the predominance of the percussion, gave the feeling that there was the support of a choir. Great performance and a great finishing touch for the block starring Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Interestingly, this theme is not included in the album ‘Across the Stars’, although it has been performed in several concerts in 2019: in Tanglewood and in Berlin, where Mutter played the music of John Williams conducted by David Newman (follow link).
After leaving the violinist the stage with a big applause and a standing ovation from the public (she even had to come back again, since the ovation extended for more than two minutes), John Williams took the microphone again, now to tell a little story about the next piece, dedicated to the movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Almost 38 years have passed since the film was released in 1982, winner of an Oscar for its soundtrack, and Williams told us how his relationship with Steven Spielberg dates back more than 40 years, in what he described as a good marriage, where he confirmed that they keep in touch continuously, sometimes speaking even daily.
Williams introduced this piece narrating the part of the film in which it appears, to prepare the audience for what we were going to hear; from the beginning, where some young kids flee the police on their bicycles, until when they arrive at the alien’s spaceship that will take him back to his home, and when it finally takes off with a great fanfare that lifts the ship and seals the farewell. Williams joked with the moment when those bicycles, which do not reach more than 50 km per hour, managed to take off in the air defying the laws of gravity, and fly giving way to a magical moment with the background of the moon.
Referring to the complexity of nuances and details that make up the piece, Williams praised the interpretation that we were going to hear from the orchestra, which he described as a unique orchestra in the world and with an incredible level of virtuosity, and that was the dream of everything come true composer: watching his music performed live. Williams assured us that at the concert we would be able to enjoy details that could not be achieved by watching only the movie, leaving us during his speech with a funny phrase in which he said that “you will enjoy the music, without the distraction of the film.”
Talking about the music, very little can be said about a piece that has been played so much in concert such as Adventures on Earth from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, except that the sublime and committed performance of the orchestra, under the precise and symbiotic conducting of John Williams, is probably the best we have heard in a concert ever. An incredibly synchronized percussion section, with extremely precise intensity and rhythms, a wonderful brass section with a clear, crisp, and perfect tone, a delicate but intensely present woodwind section, and a great strings section, whose sound grew and decreased elegantly as the piece went through its different blocks, were the magic recipe to obtain this sublime interpretation, of about 10 minutes, which ended the first part of the concert.
But this first part, which lasted almost an hour, was not going to end without first giving a warm standing ovation to John Williams; an ovation that extended for several minutes, and that made the maestro appear once again to greet the audience from one side of the hall.
A pause of about 20-25 minutes was the short time we had to assimilate the grandeur of the first part of the concert, and have multiple and fleeting encounters with many familiar faces that had come to Vienna: from journalists, to composers, to organizers of European festivals, people responsible of film music web pages, or fans from all over Europe. A concert hall that was full of familiar faces, which could make us think that we were more at a festival than at a specific concert. John Williams managed to bring us all together under the same roof.
If the first part of the concert began with the magic of Hook, the second part started with the majesty of the sound of the French horn in Theme from “Jurassic Park”, to then display the intensity of the strings and the brass, in a wide range of motifs embedded in a wonderful theme, which had a great interpretation.
The intense applause of an enthusiastic audience gave way to a very interesting piece: Dartmoor, 1912 from “War Horse”, a soundtrack that perhaps did not have all the recognition it deserved at the time, but whose quality and melodic variety could be widely verified in this concert
The following theme started playful, fun, and cheerful, with the woodwind, brass, percussion, and strings sections setting the rhythm of Out to Sea and the Shark Cage Fugue from “Jaws”, which although it does not include the well-known theme of the movie that we have listened so many times, it showed us a complete and complex use of all the sections of the orchestra, very well coordinated, where the brass had an excellent performance.
The dynamic previous theme was followed by the sweet, melodic, and tender Marion’s Theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, a true delight that doesn’t age, and that offered a moment of pause and romance, away from the busy adventures of our dear Indy. A wonderful and very emotional suite.
We were reaching the final block of the concert (at least according to the official program, since as we could see later, the part of the encores was a great surprise that extended the concert in… 5 more themes!).
John Williams took the microphone to talk about Star Wars, and how it all started with a ‘simple’ movie in 1977, which emerged from the imagination of George Lucas, and how nobody thought there could be a second part or even more: ‘we thought it was a fun and well-made movie, which would last on cinemas for 2 or 3 weeks, and then, we would be working on another project’ said the maestro.
Looking back, Williams said he was delighted to be able to continue writing for that saga for 40 years, providing more than 20 hours of music, and closing it with episode 9 recently completed. As an anecdote, the maestro commented that he saw that the first film focused on the characters of Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher), whom he described as two handsome young kids, who lived adventures together and made their action scenes and comedy scenes together, and that consequently, he was convinced that they were going to end up together as a couple at some point, so he planned a love theme for them. But to his surprise, 2 years later, when Lucas had the opportunity to continue with the saga, he revealed that they were brothers, so he had to change his plans and create the theme ‘Luke & Leia’ for them but with different connotations.
After these comments, Williams addressed the orchestra and began The Rebellion Is Reborn from “Star Wars VIII – The Last Jedi”, from the second film of the new trilogy, where John Williams links multiple new motifs with some already created motifs of the previous episode ‘The Force Awakens’, giving way to a great theme, and demonstrating that he still has talent, imagination, and creativity to expand the musical universe of this famous galactic saga in each of its new movies.
Then came the moment of Luke & Leia from “Star Wars VI – Return of the Jedi”, a sentimental and sweet theme, where the French horns play a fundamental role in delivering delicacy and emotion, which the orchestra wrapped perfectly, beautifully performing all its nuances.
And almost without pause, we got to the main theme of Star Wars, the theme that sounds at the beginning of each movie (with variations), the Main Title from “Star Wars IV – A New Hope”. A theme that is already part of the history of cinema, and whose powerful start with the percussion, along with the perfect and precise brass section, made the room tremble together with the sound of the powerful combined entire orchestra. A fantastic performance of the percussion section, accompanied by a sublime brass section. We could say that this was the peak moment of the second half. A piece that in 2019 turned 42 years old with the premiere of the 9th film in the saga. A piece with a lot of history and a lot of meaning in today’s popular culture. But best of all, was seeing maestro Williams conduct the piece with intensity, passion, and freshness. With the same joy and dedication, as if at that moment, it was the first time it was being performed in concert.
It had been just over 45 minutes of the second half, and as expected, the audience was not going to let the concert end here. Thus, after a great standing ovation and an endless applause, John Williams returned to the stage, greeted the audience, and called Anne-Sophie Mutter, since she was going to participate in the first three encores as a soloist and in the last two as part of the string section (although at that time, we were unaware that we were going to be so lucky to enjoy 5 encores!!).
To present the next piece, from the movie Cinderella Liberty, Williams explained that he had a beautiful memory of this film from a long time ago, which tells a story in which a woman makes bad decisions, and these decisions lead her to make more bad decisions.
After this presentation, which served to give context to the music, Nice to Be Around from “Cinderella Liberty” began; a piece that contains a sad and languid, but at the same time tender love theme, represented mostly by the sound of the violin. A delicious piece, not usually played in concerts, which we will surely see on more occasions live from now on, as it is included in the album ‘Across the Stars’.
Another brief presentation by Williams of the following theme, told us that we were going to listen to the duel of the animated film Tintin, and to his explanation of how this duel could be intuited in the sounds of the orchestra, Mutter responded by giving a couple of strokes of violin, to make clear what the maestro wanted to say. The Duel from “The Adventures of Tintin” followed, an agile, dynamic, elusive theme that clearly represents that struggle that moments before they had told us, especially in the part played by the violin solo.
And without the need for additional presentations, we got to the theme Remembrances from “Schindler’s List” a real gem in Williams’ work, full of emotion, feelings, and sadness, in which Mutter’s great performance was key to get into the heart of the piece, giving us goosebumps since the first notes were played.
An audience that was excited and clapping loudly, asked for more, but without any guarantee that the concert would continue, since three encores were already a sufficient concession, and at this moment, we already had one hour of the concert. But John Williams did not want to disappoint and after appearing again to greet, and almost without giving time for the audience to sit down, he turned back to the orchestra and began a powerful and intense Raiders March from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. A strong theme that perfectly summarizes the spirit of our favorite adventurer, Indy, and that the orchestra approached with supreme perfection in its entirety.
And when this could have been perfectly the end of the concert, we received an unexpected gift, Williams took the baton again to conduct one more theme, the well-known The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) from “Star Wars V – The Empire Strikes Back”.
From the information we have received, The Imperial March wasn’t originally planned, but the French horn players of the orchestra approached Williams, asking whether they could add it to the encores. He was worried that it would be too hard on them after such a long concert, but they insisted. He didn’t even have the conductor’s score for it (or at least didn’t use it), so it was a real bonus for the orchestra as well.
Musically speaking, the piece gave us an intense, dark, and martial sound, wonderfully performed with all the power of the orchestra, especially by the brass section that was incredibly fresh after so much playing. A theme whose contagious rhythm was followed by the all (or almost all) the hall moving hands and feet. A final apotheosis!
A great standing ovation from the entire audience brought together the protagonists of the concert on stage again, ending, after 5 minutes of applause, almost three hours of a wonderful concert that we will keep forever in our memory.
Much can be written about the concerts of the last weekend in Vienna, but if there is something that can be highlighted is that they have been historical; and that’s due to at least two reasons.
On the one hand, this was the first time that the Vienna Philharmonic performed a complete film music program at the Musikverein in Vienna, one of the greatest temples of classical music in Europe; a place that had resisted to such kind programs… so far! But having John Williams command the Vienna Philharmonic, accompanied by Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin, are big words; a synonym and a guarantee of quality, for which the “exception” deserved to be made. The Vienna Philharmonic is one of the best orchestras in the world, with a great classical tradition, and the fact that they have accepted film music in their ranks, opens the doors to other orchestras around the world, who could see the benefits of these types of programs and could follow the same path.
On the other hand, we have probably witnessed the last two concerts that John Williams will ever conduct in Europe. Let’s not forget that the maestro turns 88 years old in a few weeks (February 8, 2020), and intercontinental travels are not the best ally at these ages (as we could see in October 2018 with the concerts that were canceled in London and Vienna, due to health problems arising from the long flight). Surely Williams will continue to conduct concerts in the United States, as long as he wants and his body allows, since he already has some concerts planned for this year (Cleveland in April and Pittsburgh in June 2020), and probably more will be announced in the coming months, but always limiting the trips that they imply, as Ennio Morricone has done in the last years of his concert career, where his tours were limited to the Continental/European level.
Talking about the musical performance, there is no question or possible doubt about the quality of the concerts we had in Vienna. Although the second concert could be slightly better than the first one, noticing a greater rapport between all the participants, the level of perfection of both concerts was almost complete. A Vienna Philharmonic totally committed, under the baton of an excited and grateful John Williams, who had plenty of energy to conduct more than two and a half hours standing on the stage (divided into two parts), and accompanied by a virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter, showing that she could perform ‘whatever-she-wanted’ at the violin, made for us a real privilege to be there and to be able to live it and tell it later.
Fortunately, the orchestra has already confirmed the edition of the concerts on CD/DVD (read news), so all the people who could not attend, either for not having a ticket, or for not being able to finally travel despite having it, will be able to enjoy them shortly.
Those of us who attended, will relive the concerts again and again, remembering the energy that could be felt in the room; a shared energy that infected both musicians on stage and the audience in their seats. When the first note started, we were all aware that we were going to live something very special.
We have much to thank to these concerts in Vienna, but if I have to think about something, apart from the unforgettable memory that I will treasure for all my life, it is that these concerts have managed to bring a genius like John Williams and his wonderful music (time will confirm both statements), to the same temple and at the same level as the most revered classical music, along with the greatest maestros in history. John Williams did not deserve any less.
Article by Gorka Oteiza
Pictures by Gorka Oteiza & Pedro Prados