Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Reel Review: The Philly POPS Performs THE MAGIC OF JOHN WILLIAMS

It can easily be said that John Williams is one of, if not the greatest composer in film history. His scores are the most memorable and hummable pieces ever written, and his 49 Oscar nominations, is second only to Walt Disney. Williams has scored the music for this Blogger’s favorite films, so when the Philly Pops orchestra announces performances of Williams’ music, you drop everything and show up. 

This is what happens…

On a brisk and breezy lovely Spring Sunday, this Blogger arrived at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia expecting a snooty reception but was instead greeted by….Imperial Stormtroopers. Courtesy of the 501st Legion, a platoon of Stormtroopers, Imperial Officers, two dark lords, and a certain bounty hunter assisted in the chaperoning and were more than happy to pose for photos. This Blogger was led to the magnificent Verizon Hall and appropriately entered the theatre through the door marked D2 (see that?). From there, this Blogger was seated to a nice gentleman only a few years younger than Yoda who smelled faintly of mothballs. This wasn’t all too bad, as the aroma of mothballs brought back memories of this Blogger’s grandmother’s house…whose basement stairwell often became the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon every Sunday afternoon in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Fitting on all levels. 

The President of the Philly Pops, Frank Giordano, came on stage for a quick intro…in which he announced that the three John Williams concerts had set a record for the largest attendance ever for a weekend concert series (applause!). From there, Conductor Michael Krajewski came on stage and took over the galaxy. Any notions of the orchestra-types being stuffy with their noses up in the air can be dismissed; Krajewski was funny, witty, a great sport, and a real pleasure to listen to. Krajewski introduced every piece with a bit of history and provided background to what everyone was about to hear. He obviously knew that his audience wasn’t fully composed of STAR WARS fans or film geeks, as he explained each film in a way that an outsider could understand. With a gentle touch, he commanded 100% of the audience’s attention. 

And then the music started. 

It took all but three notes to send the souls of the audience flying out of their seats and high above the clouds as the theme from HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001) whisked everyone away to feelings of magic and childhood. Another quick intro, and the deep thunderous rumble of JAWS (1975) shook the innards of every audience member…and by the time it finished had everyone thinking twice before stepping into the bathtub. 

The flying theme from E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982) was next, followed by the relatively new, yet very powerful With Malice Toward None from last year’s LINCOLN. Next, was an outright emotional journey which showed the brilliance behind the order of the setlist. The magnificence of JURASSIC PARK (1993) induced tears; tears which then turned to weeping when the heartwrenching theme from SCHINDLER’S LIST (also from 1993) came next. After all the beautiful pain, the orchestra then blew the goddamn roof off the place with the up-up-and-away, exhilarating, and triumphant score from SUPERMAN (1978).  

After a brief intermission in which the audience basically walked on air to the restrooms to pull themselves together, things took a lighter turn as the Philly Pops performed some of John Williams’ somewhat lesser-known works. Call of the Champions, which was Williams’ score for the 2002 Winter Olympics, opened the second-half of the program. This was followed by a piece known officially as Mission Theme; an outstanding full score which is heard in little pieces every night on the NBC Nightly News. 

Then it was time to get serious. The large choral group, silent until this point, finally got to flex their amazing pipes. Hymn to the Fallen from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) was next, in which the choral group often overpowered the already-powerful orchestra and had everyone a blubbering mess…even mothball-man. 

And this is where the fun begins. 

Conductor Michael Krajewski gave a quick intro to the segment of the show everyone had been waiting for. The familiar 20th Century Fox theme boomed through the hall…followed by the even-more familiar blast of sound in the first notes of the STAR WARS Main Title. Krajewski once again got into the spirit by trading in his baton (that’s the little stick they conduct with, mortals), for a miniature lightsaber. The Main Title was followed up by another powerful blast from the choral group in a stunning performance of Duel of the Fates which blew everyone’s hair out on Broad Street. Once everyone picked their teeth up off the floor, things got quiet with Anakin’s Theme from THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), followed by the powerful Imperial March which was first heard in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. The two pieces complimented each other very well when played back-to-back; they share the same notes and movements, and showcase Williams’ genius in telling a story through music. Things got fun once again towards the end of The Imperial March when Darth Vader strode up on stage, force-choked Krajewski off his riser, and conducted the orchestra himself. 

Once Krajewski recovered, it was back to business with an outstanding and uplifting performance of the Throne Room and Finale from A NEW HOPE (1977). The orchestra played all the STAR WARS pieces without any intros or breaks…totaling nearly 30 minutes of consecutive playing. After a rousing finale and thunderous applause, the Philly Pops pulled a surprise. The printed program had the performance ending after the STAR WARS pieces. But Krajewski returned, and quickly began conducting a familiar march to close out the evening. This last, un-listed piece was from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)…and it sent everyone swinging home on a happy note. 


No one walks away from a performance like this unchanged. Listening to the music of John Williams disembodied from the movies allows us to re-imagine the films in our heads, which makes our bodies feel the emotional pull even more. Listening to the music via electronic devices is one thing, but to be fully blanketed in the power of a live orchestra is another; as the chords literally wrap around your body and trickle into your soul unleashing a well of an emotional journey. No one walks away from an experience like that unchanged; an experience to be long-remembered. 

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