Sadly I wasn’t able to attend this amazing event, but luckily for me, I had a couple of dear friends that did. When I found out that they went, I asked if they would be willing to write a piece about the show and their experience in attending. To hear John Williams’ music in a film is one thing. To hear it live, performed by a symphony, conducted by the man himself is something that I can only imagine as being spiritual. So please, read on to hear about the show as witnessed by my friends, Amy and Augustine Velasco.
John Williams at the Hollywood Bowl, August 27th
For those of you who don’t think you know who John Williams is, trust me, you know him. If you’ve ever seen Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Dances with Wolves, E.T., Jurassic Park, or any of the Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or Harry Potter movies, then you’ve met him through that one element of a movie that often goes overlooked, but is critical to nearly every scene: the music. John Williams has composed music for nearly eighty movies, he’s won five Oscars, two Emmys, three Golden Globes, and eighteen Grammys, just to name a few of his awards, plus he is just so cool! Seeing John Williams conduct an orchestra playing his own movie scores along with the relevant film sequences was enough to make my geeky little heart burst with joy.
We arrived early with our cooler filled with food and wine, like most everyone else, to have a quick picnic before the sold out crowd took their seats. We’d noticed walking in that there were light sabers for sale in the gift stands, and that many people, young and old, were running around with these glowing plastic rods, swishing them around to hear the signature WUUUAAHHH and CRRUISSSHHH sound of true light sabers. The movie-geek contingent was well-represented, but there was a wide variety of people there, from the over-dressed obviously well-to-do, to the Yoda-sweatshirt-wearing fan, grinning like an idiot (guilty!).
Sitting up in the cheap seats at the top of the bowl, we had a great view of the audience and stage, as well as the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park off in the distance, as we ate our picnic dinner. The program started just after night fall, with everyone jammed into their seats and benches for the show. There are always large screens on either side of the stage, but that night there was also one huge screen hanging from the bowl, just over the orchestra. As Williams walked out, the audience burst into applause. He got right to work with a film montage celebrating the movies with accompanying music. Imagine flashes of scenes from your favorite movies of the past 30 years with that iconic music played live. It was amazing to hear the orchestra switch from one piece to another, sometimes in mid-phrase, to accompany the 10-20 seconds of film. People were oohing and ahhing delightedly as they recognized the films, but I’m not sure if it was the music or the images that clued them first. I don’t know about anyone else, but I had another big goofy grin on my face at the end, as if I’d had a surprise visit from some of my favorite old friends.
I was surprised when Williams took up a microphone between pieces and spoke directly to us, explaining the program and giving us behind the scenes information on what it was like to work on some of his compositions. He has a wonderful speaking voice, and I felt like he was talking directly to me. He’s stately and refined, while also coming across as warm and friendly.
After the introductory tribute to film, the first half of the performance had a cowboy theme, focusing on the music from Dances with Wolves, and a movie I haven’t seen called The Reivers (ree-vers). The Reivers, John explained (we’re buddies now, so I can call him John), is based on a William Faulkner novel. Rather than images from the movie, the music was to be accompanied by the reading of several related passages from Faulkner’s novel by none other than James Taylor. He really has a beautiful voice. My friend Tracy (ReelGoddess’ Tracy that is) once wrote an article about Celebrity Storytellers, and to add to that article, I’d like James Taylor to read me to sleep when I’m sick. His voice is soothing and comfortable, with just the right inflection to keep the story light and interesting. After they’d finished The Reivers, John took up the mic again to thank his friend James, and said; “I know you weren’t expecting to sing, but …” The crowd went crazy! We cheered as James stepped out to the wings for his guitar, and he came back to play Sweet Baby James in honor of the cowboy theme. You could hear a pin drop in that huge place as he sang; it was just wonderful.
After the intermission, we got the really good stuff. Another montage of film and music, this time for Monsters, Damsels, and Heroes, started the second half. We got our only real taste of the Jaws theme in this set, which is the only thing I found lacking in the entire performance. Not enough Jaws.
John took up the mic again to give us an insider’s view of how they would walk through a filmed scene to decide how the music would complement it. The example he used was the Circus Train scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, starting just after River Phoenix has taken the Cross of Coronado and is running from the bad guys. As we watched the scene with the dialog and background sound only, no music, John talked us through when he thought the music should reflect surprise, foreboding, a character’s reaction, etc. He mentioned that the Cross itself had a short lyrical theme that was played every time it was shown, something I never consciously noticed, though I’ve seen that movie at least a dozen times. After he walked us through the entire scene without the music, they took the film back to the starting point and played it again, this time with the full live accompaniment. Without the music, it was still a fun and exciting scene, but the music gave it much more depth and emotion. It was surprising that the music could make such a difference in how we experience the images.
After our raucous cheering and hooting subsided into silence, we heard the bell-like chimes that introduce Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter movies. Those first eight notes rang out, and we all erupted into cheers. (Side note, those chiming notes are actually made by an instrument called a celesta, which looks like an upright piano. True story.) The music was sweeping and magical, instantly bringing you back to the early Harry Potter movies, you know, when they were fun and uplifting, before they turned dark and serious.
The last sequence of music on the program was comprised of three pieces from Star Wars: The Asteroid Belt, Princess Leia’s Theme, and the Main Theme. Though many in the audience seemed unfamiliar with the first piece, we were all entranced by the sweeping beauty of the second. (I know, I’ve used the adjective “sweeping” a couple of times now, but that’s a trademark of John’s work!) Just before the start of the last piece on the program, it felt like we were all holding our breath, waiting for that great initial blast of horns that announces … STAR WARS!!! All at once in the darkness, what seemed like hundreds of light sabers illuminated the night. I actually choked up a bit. It was that cool.
At the end of the Star Wars theme, we cheered and clapped, and hooted as John left the stage. He came back for three encores before we finally let him go home. The first, and the one I was waiting for, was The Imperial March, which gives me chills of happiness every time I hear it (ok, I might have a bit of a dark side). Everyone was so amped! All the light sabers were still being brandished in the crowd, except now, as if by prior arrangement, everyone, at the same time, started to tomahawk-chop them in time to the march. That was the best moment of the whole performance for me. It. Was. AWESOME!!! After the piece, as John was walking off stage again, trying to leave us, he glanced out in the audience and noticeably saw all the light sabers waving in the darkness. He stopped, put his hand to his heart, and then brought both hands to his mouth to blow a kiss to the audience. I just love him!
For the second encore, they played the theme from E.T., The Extraterrestrial, which made me want to race out and watch the movie again, and their last piece of the night was Indiana Jones’s theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you can’t go wrong with Indy. We cheered and clapped, and yelled, and hooted to encourage them to continue and break the Bowl’s 11pm curfew, and though John came out several more times, once even dragging James with him to point out the light sabers in the audience and take another bow, we couldn’t convince them to give us more. Ah well. There’s always next year.
Written by Amy & Augustine Velasco
Photos and video by Amy & Augustine VelascoTags: Harry Potter, Hollywood Bowl, Indiana Jones, Jaws, John Williams, Movie soundtracks, Star Wars, Superman