Active and brilliant as ever at the young age of 87, five-time Oscar-winning (out of an astounding 51 nominations) and 24-time Grammy-winning film composer and world-renowned conductor John Williams is nothing short of a timeless American treasure. We can’t imagine the multi-generational Star Wars films, our decades of Steven Spielberg blockbusters (from Jaws and E.T. to Jurassic Park), the Harry Potter series or classics like Superman without his triumphant scores. Williams is also the focus of one of the most highly-anticipated weekends on the Hollywood Bowl’s annual summer calendar. It’s the one guaranteed series of the year when families bond at the venue. When Williams’ rousing music holds court, the crowd demographic shifts from all adults to both grownups and kids, and the parents are as likely to wave the colorful lightsabers during the Star Wars pieces as their children.
Williams’ billing as “host” of this year’s three-night run with David Newman as primary conductor could have meant a whole host of things, and of course, some feared that the legend would simply be on hand to say hello to the adoring crowd and introduce his pieces. That concern was dispelled immediately when he ascended the stand to conduct the LA Phil through the national anthem. As for Newman’s role conducting all the pieces until the scheduled “Star Wars” suite at the end, there was a dynamic historical reason for this, based on Williams’ background. Two decades before Spielberg tapped him to score The Sugarland Express, the legend was launched as a humble pianist at film studios—most notably 20th Century Fox, where David Newman’s father, Alfred Newman, was music director. The elder Newman was the John Williams of his time, and his nine Oscars are more than any other musical director has received.
Traditionally with these Bowl presentations, Williams complements the expected crowd-pleasers with slightly lesser-known pieces from his own massive catalog. This round, it was delightful to hear the orchestra stirring up whimsical grit and dust on his dramatic “Overture to The Cowboys,” a John Wayne starrer from 1972, and two gorgeous pieces from the very obscure 1970 British TV film Jane Eyre, featuring graceful harp and flute solos. The lightsabers came out for the first time as we watched galactical romance bloom between “Han Solo and the Princess” (accompanied by a whirlwind of film clips from numerous Star Wars films). It was poignant, to say the least, to listen to this piece as images of a young, then older Carrie Fisher swirled by, reminding us that if the galaxy is infinite and immortal, our heroes must be as well.
Then the program took a cool, unexpected twist, with a rapturous celebration of Alfred Newman via his iconic “20th Century Fox Fanfare,” “Theme from How The West Was Won” (with action-packed film clips from classic Westerns) and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Carousel Waltz,” which evolved from a trippy synth ambient delight into more stunning rhythmic expressions. All of this, along with the evening’s opening number “Hooray for Hollywood” (and a dizzying array of Golden Age clips) put Williams’s work in context. His career is a seamless continuation of all the magic and wonder that came before him, which inspired his own amazing journey creating Tinseltown history.
The second half opening, “Theme from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge,” from the themed area at Disneyland, reminds us that Williams’ Star Wars scores are not limited to traditional films. Following the whimsical yet suspenseful six-minute score from the opening of E.T. (complete with film on the video screen) was a powerful trio of selections featuring vocals by a large chorus from the Cal State Fullerton Singers. The first was the most familiar, the epic main theme from Jurassic Park (accompanied by a video of the principals’ first wide-eyed discovery of the dinos and later, scarier scenes escaping potential attack), followed by the emotional sweep of eight minutes capturing the varying emotions of war and remembrance from Saving Private Ryan—and then a rousing chant-filled romp through “Dry Your Tears, Afrika!” from Amistad.
Then came the moment all the kids from 1 to 92 were waiting for, the “Maestro of the Movies” taking over for Newman to rousing applause and a rainbow of thousands of shaking lightsabers. Williams launched the final 13-minute suite with two slightly obscure Star Wars pieces (“The Adventures of Han” from the recent “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “Luke and Leia” from “Return of the Jedi”), then enthralled everyone with a full-five minute version of his very familiar, yet always energized and enlightening “Main Title” from Star Wars. Williams, gifted by someone in the front row with a lightsaber (which he played with, delighting everyone!), returned from the wings for the encores of his most beloved trademark pieces, “Yoda’s Theme,” “The Imperial March” and an extended, boulder-rolling adventure through Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even after ten minutes of standing ovations, the audience wouldn’t let him leave, but alas, he would return from a galaxy far, far away the following night to wrap this transcendent weekend of film music.