John Williams at the Boston Pops: A Dream Realized!

From time to time I’ll post things that aren’t necessarily related to running, so I apologize if you’ve been waiting patiently for me to return to my blog with a running anecdote. I promise a running post will follow shortly.

What I wanted to talk about today is an event I recently experienced that will forever be a tremendous pleasure to have witnessed.  It has to do with something that has always been a close to my heart and a staple of who I am, to which most of my family/friends would say as music. Not just any music, but film music, to which I absolutely adore. Seriously, give me a good score and some headphones and I don’t even need to see the movie.

If done right, film music keeps the momentum of the movie going forward, but it can also reach deep into your emotions and make you connect with a scene or character. Like when Roy Hobbs hit the game winning homerun in the rain in The Natural  (Randy Newman), or when Marty McFly made it back to 1985 in Back to the Future (Alan Silvestri), or when our cowboy heroes rode into town to take on the evil, ruthless Cobb in Silverado (Bruce Broughton), film music is paramount to making a movie memorable. Composers, much like directors, will try to develop the appropriate theme to the scene in order amplify the scene and evoke an emotion out of you. More times than not, film music is the thankless hero, engaging your emotions for a scene and then disappearing to make way for dialogue.  However, the need for a good theme was clearly evident to Steven Speilberg when he was filming Jaws. The well-known theme was actually developed because the animatronic shark kept breaking. So Steven Spielberg asked John Williams to develop something that could be drawn out to evoke a sense of fear from the audience in absence of a visual cue. To this day, that track still makes me shudder.

I had the pleasure of working in the recording suite for Universal Studios Florida as a studio engineer in my younger days and was thrilled at having access to some many cinema masterpieces. Many a late night shift, I would turn the system up to 11, and crank out The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back or Main Theme from Dr. Zhivago and just enjoy.

But, getting back to why I am writing this: Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of realizing a childhood dream, seeing my absolute hero John Williams conduct the Boston Pops Orchestra. Better yet, it was a salute to the movies and not just the ones he has penned. Excited didn’t even come close to illustrate my expectations for the evening.

As long as I can remember, John Williams’ music has had a deep hold on me. I still recall seeing E.T. in the theater as a kid in 1982 and not really liking the movie, but thinking the music was incredible. My love for Williams’ work was rekindled again when I received the soundtrack cassette to the movie Home Alone. To be honest, I enjoy a bevy of composers, Bernstein, Silvestri, Morricone, Newman (Thomas & Randy), among others, but John Williams just has a way about him. Most noted is his use of brass harmonies and percussion (bells, chimes, bass drum) to signal this is his work. But, his string arrangements are also quite complex and thematic (something I didn’t really realize until seeing him conduct live).

So enough of the chatter already, let’s get to the evening’s event.

The show was at Boston’s Symphony Hall, which is the most acoustically accurate concert hall in the U.S. and one of the top three in the world, quite an accomplishment given the place was built in 1900. On Pops nights, the floor of the theatre is converted to small tables where patrons can order food & drink, which we were sectioned. Unfortunately, my wife and my tickets were separated at different but adjacent tables. Luckily, both sets of our tablemates were nice enough to adjust seats so we could cozy up next to each other for the show. We were situated dead center and about 150 feet back from the stage, what was as close to the theatre’s acoustic “sweet spot” as humanly possible (deft planning on my part). 

The night's program
Mr. Williams took to the conductor’s pulpit to great applause and fanfare. He started the evening with the Cowboys Overture, a rousing western themed orchestral masterpiece. He then, followed up with pieces from the movie Far & Away and then a few pieces from his latest work, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Moving into his standards, he brought out some tremendous cinematic themes from the Indiana Jones franchise, The Adventures of Mutt from Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls and Marion’s Theme from Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Through all of these pieces, the Boston Pops never missed a note, the brass belting out in gratuitous fortissimo when the piece called for a strong presence and then dropping out making way for the strings to scurry their way into the limelight. He concluded the first act with my personal favorite; Flying to Neverland from the movie, Hook, but before Mr. Williams began the piece, a large movie screen descended from the rafters as he mentioned how scores are developed based on what’s being shot and how he really wanted to develop a film clip compilation for the song (something I have experience with, especially when the show directors got out of my way). As the song began flying scenes from various movies like The Spirit of St. Louis, The Rocketeer and SpaceCamp appeared on the screen. To be honest, I spent most of the time eyes fixed on the orchestra rather than the screen since I was there to focus on the performance. As the song closed, I rose to my feet along with the majority of theatre patron in a thunderous applause. The night was something to behold, and it was only intermission!
I wish my crummy iPhone had a better camera
 The second act opened with a salute to the film composer, where Mr. Williams and the Pops played a very well arranged compilation (arranged by Williams, himself) of past & present film favorites. It was essentially all of the Great Movie Ride’s Finale film, which was extra awesome for me!

He then, stopped for a minute and took us through how he scores a movie, using the opening sequence from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s the scene with River Phoenix as Young Indy and the circus train. The sequence ran (sans music) on the screen while he called out the nuances in the sequence that required music to play the key storyteller, and then played back from the start with the Pops filling in the music from his direction. Truly the highlight of the evening!
Scoring Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
 The orchestra then played the theme to the movie, Laura as a movie compilation of Hollywood starlets graced the screen (again, lots of GMR clips in this), followed by the duel track from the movie The Adventures of TinTin as clips of famous swashbuckling pirates danced above the orchestra on the screen.

The finale to the evening was clearly what most of the audience had been waiting for (I was already covered with the Hook theme), the Imperial March and Main Titles from the popular Star Wars franchise. Mr. Williams also mentioned the new film in the works and his preparation for scoring it, “I’m not lifting any weights, but I’m eating my Wheaties,” relinquishing any doubt he would be penning the soundtrack.

As we again rose to our feet, we hollered for more and Mr. Williams did not disappoint. He opened with Return of the Jedi and then followed with the Flying Theme from E.T.  which brought me nearly to tears. As he does with almost every performance, Mr. Williams closed the night with Stars and Stripes to much hoopla, patriotic lighting and even a flag of the United States unfurled just as the orchestra began to play.
Stars & Stripes
 I immediately regretted not securing tickets for additional nights as the houselights came on, as I could have easily listened to this for days. The jubilation I experienced on this night will just have to tide me over until next year’s performance.

Some of you may not be as passionate as I about film music, but I challenge you to spend a few hours with the following tracks and hopefully, you’ll get a sense of how I felt on this night.
  1. “Flying to Neverland (Main Theme)” Hook – John Williams
  2. “Prologue” The Lady in Water – James Newton Howard
  3. “Harry’s Wonderous World” – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – William Ross (based on a theme by John Williams)
  4. “At SpaceCamp” SpaceCamp – John Williams
  5. “Main Credits” Waterworld – James Newton Howard
  6. “Main Theme” Drgaonheart­ – Randy Edelman
  7. “Suite from Pleasantville” Pleasantville – Randy Newman
  8. “End Credits” Cider House Rules – Rachel Portman
  9. “End Credits” Contact – Alan Silvestri
  10. “Main Theme” Back to the Future – Alan Silvestri
I hope you enjoyed this little post about my trip to the theater and experiencing something that will be with me forever. As mentioned above, I have ton of running content and will update soon with your regularly scheduled content.