Last weekend, Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 March 2022, two concerts were held at the Muskverein in Vienna where John Williams conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker orchestra, with the participation of the famous violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Gorka Oteiza attended both concerts and offers us a special article exclusively for SoundTrackFest.
John Williams turned 90 on February 8, 2022, and a day earlier, on February 7, it was announced by surprise that on March 12 and 13 he would conduct two special concerts dedicated to his music in Vienna (read more). It looked like the maestro was giving himself a great birthday present! (Or… was he giving it to us?).
In an interview published on his birthday in the New York Times (read more), Williams mentioned that he had less and less desire to compose for the movies, since those are projects that take him 6 months to complete and at a certain age, one has to measure what he dedicates his time to. However, he also commented that it was difficult for him to say no to Spielberg or to abandon his favorite characters for whom he has created sound universes, and that is why he is going to compose the soundtrack for the films The Fabelmans (2022) and Indiana Jones 5 (2023), or the main theme for the Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, which premieres in May 2022.
However, when asked about concerts, his answer was completely different. He loved them and planned to devote as much time to them as possible, both creating new concert works and conducting.
2022 is good proof of this, as Vienna has hosted Williams’ first concerts this year, to be followed by many others, in which he either conducts the concert in full or co-conducts. On the list, so far, we have venues like Philadelphia (4/19), New York (4/21), Pittsburgh (4/25), Tanglewood (8/20), Los Angeles – Hollywood Bowl (2,3 & 4/9) and Los Angeles – Walt Disney Concert Hall (9/22). Not bad for a 90-year-old gentleman!
But let’s go back to Vienna and John Williams’ first two concerts for 2022: those of March 12 and 13. The Wiener Philharmoniker and the Musikverein Wien are no strangers to the maestro, as he conducted two concerts there in January 2020, which we told you about in an extensive special article (read more).
Two years later, and after a pandemic that we seem are finally starting to forget, it was time to return to Vienna to enjoy the music of Maestro John Williams once again. The world had changed, but the desire to see him conduct again in concert remained. As if the wounds were healing and life was returning to normal. Having John Williams in Vienna again offered comfort and security.
Despite the short notice of the concerts, the Musikveren Wien sold out both performances shortly after they went on sale. An audience eager to hear Williams conduct his music in concert again did not want to miss the opportunity.
The program was as follows:
After a great applause and a hall that received John Williams on its feet, the concert started with ‘Sound The Bells’, a piece initially conceived for brass and percussion, later adapted for orchestra, which offered a grandiose and sonorously overwhelming beginning, as a musical appetizer of what we could expect.
As already happened in the Vienna concert in 2020 where it started with ‘Flight to Neverland – Hook’ or in Berlin in 2021 where it started with ‘Olympic Fanfare and Theme’, starting this concert with ‘Sound the Bells’ was the perfect way to energize the Musikeverein’s audience and offer a memorable beginning.
It is worth noting the curious story behind ‘Sound The Bells’, a piece with no cinematic links, composed in 1993 by John Williams for a tour in Japan in which he was conducting the Boston Pops. Williams wrote the piece with the Japanese royal wedding in mind and was inspired by the huge bells of the country’s temples. You can read John Williams himself talking about the piece here: read more.
This was followed by the ‘Violin Concerto No. 2’ composed by Williams especially for Anne-Sophie Mutter, which was premiered in July 2021 at Tanglewood (read more), and now received its European premiere in Vienna. This concerto, structured in 4 movements: I. Prologue / II. Rounds / III. Dactyls / IV. Epilogue, presents a predominance of the harp, purposely placed in the first line of the stage at the conductor’s right hand, and of the soloist violinist, Anne-Sophie Mutter, placed at the left.
It is not the purpose of this article to go into detailed analysis, but it can be said that in the approximately 35 minutes that the work lasts, with a marked narrative character divided into 4 acts, Williams’ melodic style can be clearly observed, leaving us with slightly abstract moments, but with others where we can glimpse some of the techniques used in some of his works for cinema.
Below we leave you with interesting additional information about the work, from the hand of its own protagonists, Williams and Mutter:
Violin Concerto nº2 - John Williams (Liner Notes)
Composing program notes has always been challenging for me. These descriptions always seem to try to answer the question “what is this music about?” And while music has many purposes and functions, I’ve always believed that in the end, the music ought to be free to be interpreted through the prism of every listener’s own personal history, prior exposures and cultural background. One man’s sunken cathedral might be another woman’s mist at the dawning. The meaning must therefore reside, if you’ll forgive me, in the “ear of the beholder.”
I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the violin itself—an instrument that is the unsurpassed product of the luthier’s art. With so much great music already written for the instrument, much of it recently for Anne-Sophie herself, I wondered what further contribution I could possibly make. But I took my inspiration and energy directly from this great artist herself. We’d recently collaborated on an album of film music for which she recorded the theme from the film Cinderella Liberty, demonstrating a surprising and remarkable feeling for jazz. So, after a short introduction, I opened the Prologue of this concerto with a quasi-improvisation, suggesting her very evident affinity for this idiom. There is also much faster music in this movement, which while writing, I recalled her flair for an infectious rhythmic swagger that is particularly her own.
In the beginning of the next section or movement, a quiet murmur is created by a gentle motion that I think of as being circular, hence the subtitle Rounds. At one point you will hear harmonies reminiscent of Debussy, but I ask you to reflect on another Claude… in this case Thornhill, a very early hero of mine who, it can be justly said, was the musical godfather of the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration. It is also in this movement that a leitmotif or theme appears, later restated in the Epilogue.
Dactyls, a borrowed word from the Greeks, which we use to describe a three-syllable effect in poetry, as well as the digit with its three bones, may serve to describe the next movement. It is our third movement, in a three meter, and features a short cadenza for violin, harp, and timpani… yet another triad. The violin provides an aggressive virtuosity that produces a rough, waltz-like energy that is both bawdy and impertinent.
The final movement is approached “attacca” by the violin and harp, where the two instruments reverse their relative balances in a kind of “sound dissolve.” In this way, they transport us to the Epilogue. It is in this final movement that the motif introduced in Rounds returns in the form of a duet for violin and harp, closing the piece with a gentle resolution in A major that might suggest both healing and renewal.
John Williams, June 28, 2021
Violin Concerto nº2 - John Williams & Anne-Sophie Mutter (Comments)
John Williams recalls: “When Anne-Sophie invited me to compose a concerto for her, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to write for one of the world’s greatest artists. It was also a challenge, of course, because there are so many great violin concertos in the repertoire.”
Full of stylistic contrast, Williams’ Violin Concerto No. 2 begins with the rhapsodic “Prologue”. This is followed by the atmospheric, Debussyesque “Rounds”, and then by the tense, jazzy “Dactyls”, which includes a brief cadenza for violin, harp and timpani. Violin and harp duet again in the “Epilogue”, which concludes the work with what the composer describes as “a gentle resolution in A major that might suggest both healing and renewal”.
“I knew from the recording we made together for DG of my theme from Cinderella Liberty of her remarkable feeling for jazz,” Williams adds. “So I wrote a quasi-improvisation for solo violin at the start of the concerto’s ‘Prologue’ and she was completely at home with it. I can only think of this piece as being about Anne-Sophie. This is a truly personal album for me, because of the rapport I have with her and because of my long relationship with the wonderful musicians of the Boston Symphony.”
“The idea for the piece formed when we worked together on Markings,” says Mutter. “I had no idea then that it would grow into such a gigantic composition, so rich in material and with such enormous emotional and expressive scope. I’ve always loved jazz, so it was a particular joy to discover that the violin’s first entry has the freedom of jazz. It’s the ‘stem cell’ of the whole piece, a terrific starting point for such a complex work. I was overwhelmed by the piece and its technical difficulties at first. But it became a very dear friend as I worked on it every day during lockdown. It was precious to have time to explore this incredible music in depth and feel part of the creative process, to speak to John as he composed and revised the score and discover just how much he loves violin.”
Once the violin concerto was over, and while the audience applauded thinking that we were about to reach the intermission, Williams appeared again on stage and took the microphone by surprise to announce that Anne-Sophie Mutter had kindly agreed to offer an encore for this first part: “Love Theme” from the 1976 detective film “The Long Goodbye” directed by Robert Altman. A real gem rarely heard in concert, with a wonderful sound very typical of classic film noir; melancholic and romantic, with a predominance of a melody led by the violin (which, by the way, in the original version was played by a trumpet). With this theme, and when we had almost completed an hour, we reached the break.
After a 25-minute intermission, the second part of the concert began, totally dedicated to Williams’ film music, with the glorious “Superman March”; the quintessential Superman theme, where it is impossible not to get excited. A theme that makes you feel the power and strength of a superhero through its powerful brass and overwhelming orchestrations.
Afterwards, John Williams took the microphone and briefly introduced the block dedicated to Harry Potter to begin his performance with the piece “Hedwig’s Theme” dedicated to the owl that carries news from the great school of wizardry, with a tune associated forever with the saga and with an unmistakable use of the celesta. Next, the melodic, harmonious, and almost danceable “Fawkes the Phoenix” dedicated to another of the flying creatures of the Harry Potter world, and, finally, the theme “Harry’s Wondrous World”, a hymn to friendship and the adventures that Harry and his friends live, impregnated with a sonority that brings magic to all the instruments of the orchestra. A magnificent interpretation of a great thematic block.
It was the turn of the block dedicated to “Indiana Jones”, and John Williams took the microphone again to first announce that next week, when he returned to Los Angeles, he was going to start working on ‘Indiana Jones 5’, something to which the venue responded with a big applause. He also indicated that some people had commented to him if he didn’t feel too old to continue composing music for the Indy saga, and if he shouldn’t leave the baton to someone else, to which he answered: “If Harrison Ford at 79 years old can do acrobatics and ride a horse like Indy, I can compose his music with much less problems”. Laughter and applause from the audience!!!!!
The first theme of this block was “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra from ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'”, and before its interpretation, Williams went on to explain that Scherzo means joke in Italian, and that was the object of the piece, since in a certain scene of the film, with a motorcycle chase between Indy and his father on one side and the bad guys on the other, the music moves playfully back and forth, with a frenetic rhythm and changes, something that the orchestra maintained to perfection in a precise and powerful interpretation. As a curiosity, Williams also commented before starting the piece that the first time he heard how it sounded in the film was in a local cinema in his city, where, unfortunately, he expected to hear the orchestra in all its intensity and instead he could only hear the noise of the motorcycle and the rest of the special effects. Half jokingly, half seriously, he mentioned his ‘bruised ego’ as a composer, which he retaliated by programming it in concert for the enjoyment of the audience, without the ‘distraction of the film’.
Next, we entered into the music of the delicate and delightful “Marion’s Theme from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark'”, relaxing the freneticism of the previous piece through its beautiful melody – one of the many that Williams has shown us he can compose -, and that the orchestra knew how to treat with the affection it deserves.
Already in the final part of the concert, it was the turn of the block dedicated to “Star Wars”. If the evil galactic empire had a march that was presented for the first time in ‘Star Wars – Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)’, a couple of films later, although it was actually 35 years later, in ‘Star Wars – Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)’, it was time to create a march for the resistance: “Star Wars – March of the Resistance”. A piece with strength, determination, energy, and marked martial character, which comes to show the tenacity and effort of the resistance to thwart the plans of the empire. A great performance by the orchestra, very dedicated, and still offering the best of itself at this moment of the concert, without dropping a single iota.
Then, almost without pause, we arrived at the soft, calm and melodic “Star Wars – Princess Leia’s Theme” where the sweetness of the horns and the flute showed us the purest side of the princess. A theme that as Williams himself commented at the beginning of the block dedicated to Star Wars, had been initially conceived as a love theme between Luke and Leia, thinking that in later episodes they could end up being a couple, to find out much later that this incestuous relationship would not be possible.
When two hours had already passed since the beginning of the concert, the piece that was supposed to be the official closing of the program arrived: “Star Wars – Throne Room and End Title”. A piece of immense sonority, which puts the finishing touch to the first film of the saga released in 1977, and that, after a ceremonial and sumptuous musical beginning that accompanies the heroes of the story to receive their well-deserved decorations, is launched quickly and forcefully into the void of the stars, starting with the main theme of the saga turned into End Title and bringing together many of the best-known motifs of its soundtrack. A great ending, for a great concert.
But as expected, the audience was not going to leave without receiving an encore, so a loud round of applause and a standing ovation from the entire hall brought back the maestro John Williams, who smilingly pointed his hands to the seats and the upper tiers, while his lips could be read as he uttered a heartfelt “Thank You”. Taking the microphone, he gave way to Anne-Sophie Mutter, whom he thanked for her willingness to perform two additional encores, which we would then enjoy.
The first, and to maintain continuity with the recently completed block, was “Star Wars – Across the Stars”, the love theme between Anakin and Padme presented in ‘Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)’, with a special arrangement for violin that was premiered on the Williams-Mutter joint album of the same title released in 2019. A sublime theme that takes on a new dimension with the solo violin, whose sensitivity and character was perfectly grasped by Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Then came the second encore, the duel of strings and bows between the violinist and the orchestra with “The Adventures of Tintin – The Duel”, a theme that was already played in the Vienna concert of 2020, and which was performed with mastery and precision by both parts, giving rise to certain funny moments during the sonorous duel.
Williams and Mutter left the stage to great applause and the orchestra remained standing at their places while the audience insisted on their ovations. When it seemed that this was going to be all, the surprise came. The maestro returned to the stage again to receive the audience’s gratitude and then took the baton and went up to the podium without saying a word and without introducing the theme that was going to be played. A few seconds were enough to discover that the piece was the magnificent and evocative “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – Flying”, a delight that the maestro conducted from memory, without a score.
At the end of the piece, and at this point in the concert, with two and a half hours of performance behind us, we were still applauding wildly, although we were satisfied and thought that this would be the end… but we were wrong. If you didn’t look closely, it was easy to miss that John Williams, who was still on stage, was talking to members of the orchestra, as if he was asking for confirmation. After they nodded, he returned to the podium to the surprise of all present and started with “Star Wars – The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme)”, which was met with a great ovation and an excited expression from the audience.
A powerful piece, intense and with great energy, which squeezes the maximum power of the orchestra, especially the fabulous brass section, which offered a commendable intensity and purity of sound, especially considering the great work done so far. Curiously, Williams also conducted this piece from memory, without a score, something that should not be surprising, given that it is the usual closing piece of the concerts in which he takes the baton.
Thus ended a great concert of just over two and a half hours, where John Williams proved once again that he no longer has anything to prove. He is able to effortlessly fill concert halls with his music and his presence, and large orchestras with a strong classical tradition, such as the Wiener Philharmoniker or the Berliner Philharmoniker, adore him. This is something that we could see without a doubt in Vienna, both for being his second visit in 2 years, and for the face of satisfaction that could be seen in more than one member of the orchestra (and let’s hope that very soon we can see the same expressions of satisfaction in the Filarmonica Della Scala in Milan).
Film music has already found a space in the most prestigious concert halls in the world, and it is here to stay. In large part, this is thanks to Maestro John Williams, who has made this possible both with his prolific film work and his continued insistence on conducting it in concert year after year, and especially with his tireless tenacity to make this music accessible to everyone through the many official editions of his scores, which allow countless concerts around the world to happen.
Each concert that John Williams conducts is a gift offered to us by a venerable old man of 90, who, at his age, is still capable of standing for more than two hours in front of an orchestra without any problem. I don’t think we will ever have enough words to thank him for such dedication and devotion, but let these lines serve to begin with, “Thank you so much, Maestro John Williams! If you keep conducting, we will keep coming to see you!”
Article by Gorka Oteiza
Pictures by Marc Escauriaza and Gorka Oteiza