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John Williams brings down the house in Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut

MusicMusic IndustryCultureStar Wars (movie)John Williams

Letting out roars that must have been audible in Ocean City, the capacity crowd at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall rewarded film composer John Williams with ovation after ovation Tuesday night, each louder than the one before.

It was an extraordinary and moving demonstration of affection for the now 81-year-old Williams, who donated his services to conduct this benefit concert for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians' pension fund. Those musicians showed their appreciation, too, not just by heartily joining in the applause, but also by delivering crackling performances all evening in a hefty sampling of the Williams repertoire.

The occasion underlined -- and I do mean underlined; those screams got downright deafening last night -- just how deeply this composer has connected with the public over a long career that includes scoring some of the most popular movies ever made. I don't think any other musician in the history of Hollywood has ever established such a bond.

This was the first time Baltimore-area fans had a chance to express their appreciation directly to Williams, and they sure took advantage of the opportunity. Tickets sold out soon after going on sale in March; even standing room spots sold out.

(There was one worrisome note Tuesday. As he started shaking hands with some of the first-row players in the orchestra during one of several curtain calls, Williams tripped and fell. The applause stopped short and you could sense a massive intake of breath in the hall. But the composer quickly bounded back to his feet, gave a wave and continued shaking hands. The audience exploded again.)

Williams is in the same great tradition of such past masters as Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner and Franz Waxman. His immediately accessible style might recall any number of classical composers in terms of melody, harmony and, especially, orchestration -- Strauss, Holst, Dukas, Hanson, Shostakovich and others make appearances -- but still ends up sounding distinctive and pure Williams.

The vivid progression from spicy atonality to soaring lyricism in an excerpt from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is one example of the craftsmanship, and it was great to hear the BSO perform that music with such finesse and expressive thrust. The emotional uplift from the finale of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" likewise emerged triumphantly as Williams deftly guided the responsive ensemble.

This highlight-filled evening included the orchestra's woodwinds darting nimbly through "Nimbus 2000" from the "Harry Potter" Suite (in terms of color and flair, the woodwind writing easily stands comparison with the scherzo in Tchaikovsky's Fourth); a poetic account of the Copland-esque score to "Lincoln," featuring Andrew Balio's tender trumpet solo; and exquisite playing by concertmaster Jonathan Carney in an elegiac selection from "Schindler's List." 

Other notable solo efforts during the program came from Emily Skala (flute), Philip Munds (horn), Dariusz Skoraczewski (cello) and Lura Johnson (piano and celesta). But it was a night when the whole orchestra shone brightly, just as it had at the single rehearsal Tuesday afternoon, when Williams frequently expressed his admiration for the playing.    

During a film music festival given in 2003 by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, Williams brought along a video clip of the frantic opening chase from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"  and showed it first without music, then with the orchestra playing the score. He repeated that terrific demonstration at Meyerhoff Hall, and the audience ate it up. (The first attempt at syncing proved elusive, but, as Williams pointed out, that sort of thing happens all the time in the studio.)

There was room, too, for a whirlwind montage of vintage film stars, timed to Williams' sizzling arrangement of "Horray for Hollywood," which the orchestra performed in snappy fashion. (The video must have been put together by a Bette Davis fan; she got more screen time than some other worthy luminaries.)

Williams spoke to the audience in between selections, offering delectable insights and anecdotes, the funniest involving an exchange with Spielberg after the two men watched the not-yet-scored "Schindler's List." Williams: "The film deserves a better composer." Spielberg: "I know, but they're all dead."

Arranging for this event, which raised about $200,000, took some time. Music director Marin Alsop made the invitation a couple years ago, but scheduling proved tricky. Alsop didn't give up and, neither, it seems, did her young son Auden.

Williams saluted the boy, "an ardent 'Star Wars' fan, for convincing me I needed to come here. So thank Auden for his persistence."

The composer also spoke about enjoying "this great visit with your fantastic Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. You can be very proud of them."

All in all, quite the love fest. And like a good movie, the end credits came too soon.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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