Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: The Music of John Williams: A 90th Birthday Celebration – Live Review

Earlier this year, I attended a concert at Melbourne’s iconic Sidney Myer Music Bowl and witnessed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra celebrate the ongoing career of one of, if not, the most famous film composers of the century. His name is John Williams and on the 8th of February exactly 90 years prior to that day, he was born.

Skip forward a few months later and the MSO have turned up the dial on the celebratory meter, putting on two incredibly special evenings of ‘The Music of John Williams: A 90th Birthday Celebration’ on Wednesday the 1st of June and Thursday the 2nd of June at Art Centre Melbourne‘s Hamer Hall, celebrating the ongoing works of this incredible composer.

Conducted by Nicholas Buc and hosted by self-confessed music nerds, Prof. Dan Golding and Andrew Pogson from The Art of the Score, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra set to put on a performance of some of the most iconic scores and dive deep into some lesser-known pieces from Williams’ vast career.

The MSO hit full tilt right out of the gates with a piece that needed no introduction, the ‘Superman March’. I got goosebumps as soon as the horn section hit that first note and I knew right away that this was going to be a night to rival all MSO performances I had seen before. Naturally, the piece ended with a thundering applause, and I could feel the smiles of the audience around me. Well, at the very least, my face was beaming, and this was only the first song!

Now, you may recall from some of my previous MSO reviews that I have mentioned a pre-show talk by the lads from The Art of the Score, Prof. Dan Golding and Andrew Pogson, with the evening’s conductor as a special guest, discuss and dissect these amazing pieces of music and how they fit together within a film. Well, last night was exceptionally special because we got to experience these insights for the entire evening. Golding and Pogson introduced the bodies of work that are on the setlist, but they also deep dived into some of the lesser-known pieces.

Not only did they discuss these parts of Williams’ career, but they also threw the narrative over to Nicholas Buc who expertly conducts the MSO to perform examples of these fanfares and themes for the audience. For example, the famous ‘Peter Gunn Theme’ that Williams played piano on before he was a famous composer. The ‘DreamWorks Logo Theme’ and even ‘The Mission’ Channel 7 News fanfare. Yup, that is also created by John Williams! I never thought I would ever hear the fanfare I listen to almost daily, live and by a full orchestra! What a treat!

The first half of the evening consisted of; Raiders of the Lost Ark: March’, ‘Jaws: The Shark Theme’ (be honest, you hear it in your head, don’t you?), ‘Star Wars: A New Hope: Princess Leia’s Theme’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof: Cadenza for Strings’ with an incredible solo performance by Concert Master, Sophie Rowell. The MSO were also joined by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus who put on a stunning vocal performance of the enchanting song, ‘Somewhere in my Memory’ from Home Alone, and ‘Call of Champions’, the Official Theme of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

Throughout the night we were treated to some demos of John Williams iconic themes and how the became to be. The ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Suite’ consists of only five notes and Williams tested an incredible number of variations on different instruments until he found the one that stuck. Nicholas Buc conducts several individual performers and demonstrates this process, with some musical comedy thrown in.

Later in the set, we were also treated to how the simple practice of scales, performed quicker and quicker created the beautiful flying theme that resulted in the iconic ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter. It is these insights into the technical nature of scores and Williams’ ability that made this performance extra special.

However, the two best performances of the evening fell either side of the intermission and both contained vocals from the MSO Chorus. At the end of the first half, the MSO Chorus beautifully harmonised the horn section intro to the ‘Jurassic Park Theme’. This is a film that holds a special place in my heart as it is the first film I can vividly remember experiencing a child, and hearing this live with the chorus had me feeling all kinds of emotions.

Then just as I composed myself, my emotions turned to excitement with a theme that I have been dying to hear live for years, ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: Dual of the Fates’. We can probably all agree, Episode One is not the best film. But the score is one that I have always adored and ‘Dual of the Fates’ is by far my favourite song from the entire Star Wars franchise. To finally be able to hear this live was an absolute treat. I have been humming the melody all day today, and I am certain that those that know the theme after reading this, will now have it stuck in their heads! Sorry, not sorry!

Few people will know that John Williams was an accomplished jazz musician before he hit his strides as a film composer. This talent was brought to light with a quick rearrangement of the front of stage to allow for a jazz trio to perform the theme from the film, Catch Me If You Can. A film that I have not seen myself, but after hearing the score, it is one film that is moving up on the to-watch list.

The remainder of second half of the evening consisted of some Williams’ more iconic works with ‘Saving Private Ryan: Hymn to the Fallen, the funky ‘The Knight Bus’ theme from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that is quickly backed up with ‘Double Trouble’ from the same film. Hook’s nostalgia fuelled ‘Finding Neverland’, and a finale from Star Wars consisting of ‘The Empire Strikes Back: Asteroid Field’, ‘A New Hope: Throne Room’, and ‘Finale’.

You may be wondering, “What about ‘The Imperial March’?!” Well, fear not my friends, because there was also a fantastic encore that showcased ‘The Imperial March’, complete with Nicholas Buc gleefully wielding a red Light Sabre. It was rather comical watching him swing that thing around and gesture to the different sections of the orchestra with parodical malice. Buc also joked that with the evening complete, we still needed an after party, then suddenly putting the orchestra into full swing with the ‘Cantina Band Theme’. It is safe to say it was one hell of a way to polish off a perfect evening.

I have always adored when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform film scores, but last night was something else! The mix of music that spans a lifetime of film, the informative and comedic narration from Golding, Pogson, and Buc, with the bonus of a full choir, makes this by far the best MSO concert that I have ever been to.

John Williams is easily my favourite composer, and it is no coincidence that his music accompanies some of the best, but also my favourite films of all time. It is hard to believe that this living legend is 90 years old and is still churning out themes and scores for new projects such as the new Obi-Wan Kenobi series and the upcoming fifth Indiana Jones film.

I wish I could tell you that you could get yourselves tickets to experience this incredible three-hour celebration, but sadly, last night was the final performance in Melbourne. So, I will say this; next time you see a film, regardless of the composer, take note of the music. Because without the music, films just would not be the same. I would like to take this opportunity thank the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for putting on this wonderful and sneakily educational concert, and John Williams for being the soundtrack to my favourite films. I hope that I get to experience many more in years to come!

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performed ‘The Music of John Williams: A 90th Birthday Celebration’ at Art Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on Wednesday the 1st of June and Thursday the 2nd of June at 7:30pm (for both nights), which was also recorded for

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