Royal Philharmonic plays John Williams film music (starring Superman)
23 Jan 2017
Superman starred in the opening of this sell-out concert. As the full musical force resounded into the rafters of the Corn Exchange Saturday, you could almost see Christopher Reeve swooping around the roof whilst his famous theme rose above the delighted audience. It was certainly a change from the classic repertoire of the nation’s most celebrated orchestra as they presented a night dedicated to the work of John Williams, not the guitar player, but the multi-Oscar winning mastermind behind Harry Potter, Home Alone, Raiders of the Lost Ark and others.
Here was a step change to surprise the Royal Philharmonic’s most fervent fans. Everything was different. The evening began in the foyer. Members of the orchestra super elegant in white tie and tails, mingled with the audience queuing for drinks. Unusual? I have never spoken to a player in my life, let alone chatted over a glass of red wine before the performance. Tamás András, the first violin and Leader of the Orchestra was ready to engage. 'Isn’t this a bit of a night off for you?' I ventured recklessly. 'Absolutely not. John Williams’ film music is sophisticated. Remember, many great composers have written for film including Corngold and Shostokovitch. The music makes the film; it provides the emotion, without it the story would be lost.' Hungarian star Andràs is one of the world’s most accomplished violinists and has won every prize including the Carl Nielson international violin competition in Denmark. His repertoire includes the most complex works of Mozart and Beethoven yet he sincerely felt that the theme from Star Wars was tremendous.
The concert proved him right. Once the Royal Philharmonic under the baton of Robert Zeigler got going any skeptics melted their misgivings. Superman was succeeded by a piece whose opening bars are surely as famous as the 1812 overture: Jaws. With its sinister rhythmic thrum it is the ultimate signature tune.
'I don’t know why people laugh when they hear it,' Williams has remarked baffled, 'Haven’t they seen the film?' The Cambridge audience did see it in their imagination as the menacing music built into its climax. This concert reminded everyone how much we all have invested in the skill, the precision, the subtle orchestration required to create the images that make the movie. 'We could spend an entire evening simply playing John Williams’ greatest hits,' teased the compere Tommy Pearson, 'And we shall.' They were all there: the heroic chords of Indiana Jones Raider’s march conjured a vision of the dashing Harrison Ford with his slouch hat and steely jaw, and the theme from ET the Extra Terrestial was doubly touching as it magically manifested the little lost alien of many a Christmas special.
In fact the music alone was, strangely, more poignant, than when twinned with its epic visuals. The most moving moments came coincidentally from Tamás András, whom I’d met by chance before the show. He played the theme from Schindler’s List on solo violin, with such heartbreaking intensity even in the acoustically challenging Corn Exchange it created a frisson of pure emotional empathy with the film’s story -- the Holocaust and the people who died in it. Composer Williams was overcome when Speilberg asked him to write the score for the film. 'But you really need a much better composer than me,‘he protested’. 'Probably,' replied Speilberg drily, 'But they’re all dead.'
András featured again in excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof, and the haunting theme to Oliver Stone’s brilliant JFK . 'A film about an American president,' announced our presenter Pearson, 'who is still held in the highest esteem, admired and loved throughout the world.' Pause. A hollow knowing laugh rang around the auditorium. 'I see you’re writing your own jokes,' he quipped.
This concert got more and more unorthodox. And to round it off, Pearson read out some Tweets sent during the interval from the audience. One read 'At last a concert in Cambridge, where I live.' It was from the conductor Robert Zeigler.
'We’ll be checking his travel expenses,' our compere quipped.
But if the thunderous applause for Zeigler’s fabulous orchestra was anything to go by, no one would begrudge this maestro the biggest fee in the business.