John Williams apparently remarked about his soupy score for E.T. “It’s shameless; will we get away with it?” To which Spielberg replied “Movies are shameless.” Being John Williams must be one of the best jobs in the world, because completely shamelessly, he gets to write in the musical language of the great dead Hollywood composers such as Hermann and Korngold (who themselves took inspiration from the great Romantics such as Strauss, Mahler and Wagner), and, with the forces that Hollywood budgets are able to command, to orchestrate as lushly and expensively as he wishes.The result, as demonstrated at Thursday night’s Prom – a tribute to Williams, who turned 85 this year – is a lifetime’s output of singable tunes, militaristic marches that Walton would have been proud of, and some quirky pastiches on Swing and Jazz Fusion.
The BBC Concert Orchestra under Keith Lockhart (who succeeded Williams as conductor of The Boston Pops Orchestra) was on top form – as they should be, as Williams’ music is right in their zone – from the initial zesty trumpet tune of Raiders March from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark through the haunting strings-and-harp Prayer for Peace from ‘Munich’, Hedwig’s Theme from ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ – twinkling with celesta glockenspiel and harp – to the final timps-trumpets-and-triplets main title theme from the first Star Wars film, that probably 80% of people on the planet will recognise.
Williams has his recognisable style, of course; he loves his French horns (they introduce the second theme in ‘Raiders’, begin the longer melody in the theme from ‘Jaws’, play the counter melody and Can you read my mind? in the March from ‘Superman’, and so on); and, in homage to the Hollywood greats, he’s a sucker for a sweeping melody and chromatic harmonies. But the evening provided a chance to hear some of Williams’ lesser-known film music, and to understand his mastery of pastiche. Unlike some other composers in the world of popular entertainment, Williams is subtle in his use of suggestion; yes, the tropes are there, so that the aural reference points of the illusion are unmistakable, but the melodies are distinctly his own. Sayuri’s Theme from ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, is a delicate-as-cherry-blossom Japanese fantasy for strings and woodwind, over which a solo cello plays mournfully (rendered with subtle skill by Jamal Aliyev, one of the BBC’s young ‘Introducing’ classical artists).
The theme from ‘The Terminal’ (a story of the displaced Viktor Navorski) is full of the sounds of Klezmer, for which the orchestra was joined by accordionist Mark Bouise and clarinettist Annelien Van Wauwe. Dartmoor from ‘The War Horse, in its rich string tone, gave more than a nod to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams; Dry your tears Afrika from ‘Amistad’ was a magnificently rhythmic djembe-and-claves Township number underscored by weighty syncopated brass, and featured the open but tuneful voices of Haringey Vox and Music Centre London. The Devil’s Dance from ‘The Witches of Eastwick’– scored, among other things, for two thunder sheets – had just enough about it for you to know that Dance Macabre was being hinted at, but Saint-Saëns himself wasn’t present. Perhaps the most un-Williams-like number was the brilliant piece of nightclub jazz-fusion that is Joy Ride (Escapade No. 3) from ‘Catch Me if You Can’, in which the young saxophonist Jess Gillam shone out as a performer to watch: playing the busy complex part from memory, and maintaining the true entertainer’s eye-contact with her audience.
The return of this particular Jedi, with his score for the next two Star Wars films, is eagerly awaited.