John Williams in Concert: a FanGirl’s (And FanBoy’s) Dream Concert

Those who know me know I love to love things: a song worth listening to twice is a song worth memorizing. A movie worth a re-watch deserves multiple rewatches. A book worth reading again–you get the idea. When I love something, I really love it, and I love to get other people to love the things I love; enjoying things I love with other people means I can have endless conversations about those things.

Such is Star Wars and John Williams to Lawrence Loh, conductor of last night’s Music of John Williams PNC Pops! show.

He saw Star Wars 13 times in the theater. The music of John Williams inspired him and likely played a part in his illustrious career as a conductor. Even if you’re not a fan of Williams or any of the dozens of movies he’s scored, I dare you to sit through five minutes of Loh’s giddy appreciation and not believe his opening proclamation:

“You’ll see there’s no big screen or special effects, because the music can stand on its own.

He’s right. The music does stand on its own, and how. If you’re attending tonight and you’re a classic fangirl like myself, walk away from this review now and know you’ll have the time of your life; otherwise, keep reading. Because…. SPOILERS.

(A quick note about the pre-show tuning: we all love hearing the musician’s discordant rehearsal before the show, but picking out the Raiders trumpets in the cacophony has become one of my favorite symphony memories, ever. See? Fangirl.)

Hedwig’s Theme

John Williams has made a career of writing memorable hooks, but for me, none are so thrilling as the opening bells to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Those trilling, dancing notes of the celeste capture everything we love about the books: the child’s wonder, the literal magic, the drama, the humor. And Hedwig’s Theme aptly includes those soaring, fluttering, circular note progressions of which Williams is so fond; for the great unwashed, Hedwig is Harry’s loyal snowy owl, and those soaring strings evoke her flights over Hogwarts. The selection opened the night with a breathless anticipation that continued through the next several selections.

Here, Loh broke in to introduce the show, revealing his deep love of Star Wars, and he wasn’t kidding; the fact that he called out the night’s selections as being from “the seven episodes” is enough to prove that he’s embraced the entire Star Wars universe, “Clone Wars,” Rogue One, and all; I’m sure he’s read all the canon novels, as well. But Star Wars comes later in the show.

Next up: Raiders.

Raiders March

When I go to a live concert, I want to hear something new in the music, which is why I familiarize myself with music before seeing a show, whether it’s a symphony or musical. Live performances allow us to hear levels we can’t pick up on headphones; we can gain a deeper understanding of the score. If I walk out of a concert having learning nothing new, I’ll have considered the evening a waste.

Last night was not a waste.

We all know the trumpet theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark; no one who’s seen the movie doesn’t imagine a whip-swinging Indiana Jones when we hear it. But if you’re going tonight, listen for the triangle. Listen for the xylophone, and again, for the bells of the celeste. Listen for the deep old-Hollywood sound when the strings come in; Ingrid Bergman could’ve come sauntering across the stage and she’d have fit right in. Listen for the ponticello–a word I learned last night from a helpful cellist, post-show–on the strings, a grating rasp that adds a sense of danger to the escalating trumpets. Did I tear up? Yes, I did.

Theme from Far & Away

The most surprising number of the evening was the theme from Far and Away, a movie that was remarkable only because the one time I skipped school, I went to see it. (I was a nerd. Nerds don’t skip school, and when they do, they plan for it and decide to see mediocre Tom Cruise vehicles.) Far and Away was about Irish immigrants coming to America during the land-run days at the turn of the last century, and Williams took the opportunity to introduce the Irish music traditions to the score. As Loh told the story, the PSO’s orchestration was originally performed with Itzhak Perlman… and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Violinist Jeremy A. Black took center stage as the soloist of the piece, and his passion, balanced against the orchestra’s strings brought a sense of yearning, loss, and hope to the classic American themes. The piece felt the least film-score-like of the night, with periods of silence behind Black’s solo, and featured bowing that was electrifying to watch. If you’re going tonight, watch the string sections’ hands during this piece; you won’t be disappointed.

The Supernovas Perform Superman

I’ve been to a lot of symphonies, concerts, and musicals, and I’m often overcome by the music. It’s how I roll. (See: fangirl.) But sitting through twelve trombonists–nine of whom wore Superman t-shirts–perform the theme to Superman rates as one of the most joyous, overwhelming, absolutely amazing-oh-my-god-worth-every-moment-looking-for-parking-downtown experiences I’ve had at a live show.

Jim Nova, trombonist, is a John Williams fan. Like, really. He orchestrates Williams’ scores and then records himself doing every part, uploading the results to his SoundCloud channel. The twelve trombonists–called The Supernovas–were comprised of players from the PSO, Duquesne University, and CMU, and they played his orchestration last night, unaccompanied by drums, cymbals, or any of the original score’s extra flash. Just a dozen trombones, tromboning.

Jim Nova is on the far left. And yes, that’s Lawrence Loh in a cape.

I cried. Like, tears pouring down my face and puddling in the corners of my wide, adoring grin. Listen for the growling bass tones; for the mellow song of the tenor section; and when the lead melody calls out, you’ll feel like flying, too.

(Also, big ups to the Superwoman, third from the left, who played trombone alongside eleven Supermen.)

Music from JFK

Alas, through no fault of Loh’s or the musicians’–they played superbly and passionately through the evening–the last two pieces of the first act felt derivative, with none of the previous selections’ ecstasy.

“Theme from JFK” is more or less an Aaron Copland piece, with a heavy John Philip Sousa flavor: all military snares and trumpets, bringing to mind the expanses of the American west and the solemnity of loss. The swift break into the “Motorcade”–the scene in which Kennedy is shot–is a welcome, discordant, jazz-like break, but after a moment all I heard was Leonard Bernstein’s “The Rumble” from West Side Story, combined with William’s own “Theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The JFK suite ended with “Arlington,” and while the gunshot-like snares complimented the trombones, and the musicians played beautifully, the score itself let me down.

Flight to Neverland

While I loved most of the evening’s programming, ending the first act with this selection from Hook felt like a major misstep. When you’re listening to the same composer’s pieces all night, you’re going to hear repetition in style and form, and understand which instruments are their favorites. You’re also going to hear when they’re phoning it in, and this piece from Hook presented a John Williams mashup that never quite got off the ground. Some note progressions so obviously derived from other scores that my spouse and I looked at each other and laughed–“There’s Raiders!” There’s Star Wars!

My note here reads: Feels like a first draft of Harry PotterHook has no hook; it’s missing Harry Potter’s celeste’s bells, Jaws’ bass, Superman’s trombones, Indiana Jones’ triumphant trumpets. It’s a just-fine film score, played superbly by world-class musicians, but in the context of the rest of the evening, a dull choice with which to end the first act.

Second act: Star Wars

Watching Lawrence Loh talk about Star Wars, we know several facts about him: at some point in his early years, he stood in the middle of his bedroom in a plastic Yoda mask and conducted an orchestra of action figures. He draped a blanket over his head and compelled those same plastic musicians to play in sync, powered by the Force. He stood against Lord Vader himself and was Force-choked into submission. He did all these things, in front of an audience of siblings or alone, and he dreamed of the day he’d get to do them for real.

We know all these things, because he re-enacted all of them, last night. His exuberance, tempered with a deep sense of self-effacing silliness, infused the hall with an infectious joy that kept us smiling to the end.

The Star Wars selections included the expected open with “Main Title” and end with “Throne Room and End Title,” but included some nice surprises. “Rey’s Theme” from The Force Awakens was particularly well-written, set against the desert expanse of Jakku, imbued with Rey’s light, curious step as she scavenges, and underscored with her deep power and potential. Watch for the furious bowing of the cellos and bass in “Battle of the Heroes” from Revenge of the Sith, and listen for the hint of the Imperial March’s horns that foretell Anakin’s dark fate.

For me, the highlight of the Star Wars act was “Leia’s Theme,” offered as a tribute to the late Carrie Fisher. The flutes introduce Leia’s deceptive delicacy, and we descend into the deeper, dignified tones of the French horn, revealing her inner strength and hidden turmoil. It’s a fitting tribute: in retrospect, this piece feels like a barely-contained struggle for dignity and control over uncontrollable forces. Leia’s battle is against an external enemy; Fisher’s evil emperor was locked within her own mind.

Rather than spoil the delightful surprises that close the evening, I’ll leave it there. Suffice to say that you’ll not be disappointed. You’ll laugh. You’ll gasp. You’ll long for the days when you draped a blanket over your own head and compelled your stuffed animals to float. You’ll sleep easy knowing that Lawrence Loh finally achieved his childhood goal of becoming a Jedi.

If you’ve seen the program, comment and let me know what you thought of the show–as fellow fans, I’m sure we can engage in lively debate. What else is the internet for?

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Jul 17