A Close Encounter with John T. Williams
The venue for my first close encounter with the outstanding musician John T. Williams was the Barbican Hall, home of the London Symphony Orchestra, on June 26, 1996. Thunderous applause and wild cheers rang out that evening as the full house demanded Mr. Williams’ reappearance onstage for a second encore. We had already been treated on this special occasion to an encore of the theme music from Sugarland Express, with a breathtaking performance by the LSO’s principal flutist in a virtuoso arrangement for flute of the harmonica part originally composed for Toots Thielmans.
The concert opened in attention-grabbing style with the U.K. premiere of Summon the Heroes, written for the July 1996 Centennial Celebration of the modern Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. “A bit of a blow,” as one member of the orchestra remarked to me after the morning rehearsal. The LSO brass section were swelled for this new celebratory work by four additional trombones and four trumpets positioned upstage left and right. In quick succession followed the Cowboys Overture and music from JFK, which for me proved to be the jewel in the crown of the program. The beautiful closing segment for strings, following the French horn solo, sounded in many ways comparable to modern English orchestral string writing at its very best: Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, Bliss’s Music for Strings and, of course, Elgar.
As expected, the old war horses — the “Imperial March” and the main title to Star Wars — were played in grand style. These pieces and an arrangement of the romantic “Thousand and One Nights” theme for Princess Leia (which is not in the original film score) were preceded by a few anecdotal film footnotes from Mr. Williams. Following the interval came the heraldic march from Superman, music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stunningly played, and the themes from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and the most recent Oscar winner, Schindler’s List, with a violin solo by the LSO’s guest leader Marcia Crayford.
Before leaving us for the night, with E.T.’s “Adventures on Earth”, a personal favorite, and a final encore, the Raiders March, Mr. Williams turns on the podium to face the audience and acknowledges his sincere appreciation and deep-felt pleasure from working again with the LSO. There is genuine emotion in his voice as he recalls with great affection those bygone days composing and recording at Denham Studios. He singles out some older friends from the orchestra who were present on that historic occasion 20 years ago when the LSO trumpeters (a wave toward Maurice Murphy) blazoned a top B-flat proclaiming the advent of Star Wars and a new era in symphonic composition for the cinema. He graciously remarks that the LSO were in many respects co-collaborators of this music and the long series of film scores which followed, including Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is clear this is a nostalgic occasion for all present and one we will never ever have again in London. My companions and I are deeply moved by the standing ovation and left the concert hall a little saddened, despite knowing that Mr. Williams will continue to compose and record for us his remarkable music for many years to come.
Bill Snedden lives in Aberdeen, Scotland