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Friday Night Classics: John Williams at The Oscars – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Michael Seal
Reviewer:  Selwyn Knight

John Williams is a musical chameleon. He is able to adjust his style to suit, it seems, any film, although he will, of course, forever be associated in the minds of audiences everywhere for his long-standing collaboration with Stephen Spielberg, having scored all but three of the latter’s films.

Almost 85 years of age, and in a career of composition spanning almost 60 years, Williams shows no sign of slowing down. If further proof were needed, Williams has been nominated 50 times for Oscars sometimes multiple times in the same year – only Walt Disney has a higher number –  and won five times, the first time being in 1971 not with original music, but for his orchestration of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s score for Fiddler on the Roof, allowing the full might of the orchestra to be heard. His other wins included Best Original Dramatic Score for Jaws in 1975 and Best Original Score for Star Wars in 1977, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1977 and Schindler’s List in 1993. Music from these films, alongside that from other nominations, makes this evening’s concert a true celebration of the film work of Williams.

Leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) is Associate Conductor, Michael Seal, no stranger to the series of Friday Night Classics concerts. When conducting, he inhabits the score and channels the music, going beyond mere keeping time. His gestures seem to beckon forth the notes, shaping them as they go on their way to hang unsupported in the air, enabling the quality of the CBSO to shine through.

The evening opens with some of the music Williams is best known for, with the Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Williams captured the adventurous heart of the film together with a softer, more romantic theme. The superb acoustics of Symphony Hall enable all players of the CBSO to prove their worth as each instrument is clearly audible, even Amid the crash and clatter of this and other themes including Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars and, as a richly deserved encore, Superman.

But Williams can also be rather more pastoral – in his piece for War Horse, Dartmoor 1912, as English as cricket at Lords, the flute line evokes Vaughn Williams and The Lark Ascending. The feeling of longing is palpable and the close is quite intensely spiritual, demonstrating the dynamic range of both Williams’ writing and the CBSO’s playing. Also moving are Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan and the incredibly haunting theme from Schindler’s List, in which the quite beautiful solo violin line is done full justice by leader of the orchestra, Andrew Beer, who also (who else?) does a turn during the excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof.

There are also more quirky, eccentric pieces, for example, the jazzy backing to the retro opening titles to Catch Me If You Can, with sterling solo performances from Adrian Spillett on vibes, Mark O’Brien on saxophone and Julian Atkinson on double bass, or the almost atonal and mildly unsettling Knight Bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, all played with the usual skill and aplomb of the CBSO.

Acting as the glue tonight is presenter Tommy Pearson, who competently provides us with titbits about the films and Williams himself between pieces.

Another triumph from the CBSO, demonstrating again the skills that make them one of the leading orchestras around.

Reviewed on 3 February 2017 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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