John Williams and the New York Philharmonic
I've been a busy boy over these many weeks, working on several projects. But I did have the opportunity to see the great film score composer, John Williams, conduct the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.
I've been to other Lincoln Center tributes to film music: A terrific program in 2005, featuring Itzhak Perlman, which I commented on here, and a previous John Williams appearance in February 2004, "The Art of the Score," which featured selections from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "JFK," the Harry Potter films, "Far and Away," "Catch Me if You Can," "Schindler's List," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," and a few other classic fanfares and encores (including the theme from "Star Wars").
This year, the Williams program focused on the music of the incomparable Bernard Herrmann, and, in the second half, the various collaborations between Steven Spielberg and John Williams. What made the concert extra-special was the appearance of directors Martin Scorsese and Steve Spielberg as hosts.
Scorsese spoke glowingly of the great Herrmann, and gave us a wonderful portrait of how Herrmann worked. Selections from Herrmann's scores were in abundance: "Death Hunt," from On Dangerous Ground, material from Herrmann's early years in Hollywood (Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Currier and Ives), a magnificent section on his immortal collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, featuring excerpts from the films themselves (the lovely, sensitive melody of the "Scene d'Amour" from Vertigo, the unmistakable prelude and jarring shower scene chords from Psycho, and the thrilling main theme from North by Northwest), and two selections from Taxi Driver.
Scorsese told a charming and poignant story of his work with Herrmann on that last film. On the very last night before the film wrapped, Scorsese was looking for one last cue that would somehow convey the off-kilter character of Robert "You Talkin' to Me" DeNiro. Herrmann had the orchestra play a single chord.
"That's it?" Scorsese asked.
"Yes! Play it backwards," the maestro said. And then, Herrmann left the studio.
And they did run the recording of that chord backwards, and it is amazing what that sound conveys.
But it was the last cue ever conducted by Herrmann, who passed away that very evening.
The second half of the program was hosted by Spielberg, and opened with the classic approaching shark theme from Jaws. Williams led the orchestra through excerpts from Close Encounters and Schindler's List (featuring the wonderful Glenn Dicterow on violin). And Spielberg gave us a lesson on the organic role that music plays in the crafting of film, a role that began with those pianists who offered live accompaniment during the silent era. We watched a whole film segment without music from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with River Phoenix as the young Indiana. And then, the orchestra joined in, as Spielberg re-ran the same scene, providing us with a live rendition of the scoring, in sync with the action on film. It was utterly remarkable, and helped us to appreciate the art of the score, not just creatively, but technically as well.
The most breathtaking segment of the concert, however, had to be the finale from E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. I'd seen Williams conduct this particular finale back in 2004, but this time, the orchestra provided live accompaniment for the final segment of the film, which was shown in its entirety on the big screen. Exhilirating, stupendous, phenomenal... there just aren't enough adjectives to describe this experience. It brought me and many other audience members to tears, and in the end, it brought every single person to their feet.
The Williams, Scorsese, and Spielberg commentary made the concert an entertaining and educational treat. But what would any concert be without an encore? Williams re-took the stage after the E.T. extravaganza, and gave us additional material from his recent score to Munich. He also conducted his fanfare for the "NBC Nightly News," since it was doubtful that any of us would get home in time to catch it.
The concert ended with the theme from Star Wars, a triumphal conclusion to a splendid evening.