ALBANY — The marriage of a musical score with cinema produces a profound emotional reaction and lasting memories. Hollywood has understood this for years, and this is why composer John Williams is a household name. Generations of sci-fi fans recognize the man as The Man behind some — if not all — of the most iconic movie themes in history.
The genius behind his craft, Albany Symphony Music Director David Alan Miller said, is his knowledge of every instrument in a moving orchestra. And, as one of the most celebrated living composers, he was the star of the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s latest show, despite never walking into the Palace Theatre.
The ASO decided to honor Williams on the unofficial holiday celebrated by droves of Star Wars fans as May the Fourth (be with you). His seminal work on the musical score for George Lucas science fiction opus was not the first of his five Oscars, not the first of his four Golden Globes, and not the first of his 24 Grammy Awards. But, as the Skywalker family soap opera has developed into an institution over the past 40 years, it was his first step into immortality. All the more reason to celebrate him on May 4.
The prospect of observing William’s work played by a Grammy Award-winning orchestra and musical director was too much to pass up last weekend. It made for the perfect opportunity to introduce the orchestra to my 6-year-old daughter. Prospects multiplied exponentially with our fortuitous rendezvous with Miller on the sidewalk. He graciously spent the city block between 677 Prime and the Palace Theatre asking my daughter questions and sharing tidbits of the upcoming show. It was the first time I heard that she planned on becoming a conductor after a career in science. “You can do both,” he said. Later, her face lit up as he dropped mention of their conversation before the sold-out Palace, and that he hoped she would enjoy her first orchestra.
Miller had walked onto the stage wearing a brown fedora, tipping his hand to the first score of the night; the theme to “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” for which he earned a Grammy in 1982. “The Raiders March” is synonymous with Harrison Ford’s protagonist, not so much an adventure seeker as he is a champion for preserving historical artifacts that “belong in a museum.” It’s the trumpet that stands out beyond all of the orchestra’s instruments in this piece, announcing the hero’s presence. And, it did not disappoint. The piece was followed faithfully in its chronicity by the theme to “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”
Stephen Spielberg’s sci-fi drama involving the relationship between a wayward alien and a schoolboy was an international phenomenon not unlike that of Lucas’ Star Wars in 1982. Unlike contemporary films that incorporated Top-40 hits from record artists, Williams’ score for “E.T.” amplified the emotional highs and lows of the hit film. The soaring play of the violins lift audiences to the moon, as Eliot did with E.T. in 1983. Williams took home an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and two Grammys, as a result.
Williams’ last Academy Award was earned for Best Score in the 1993 film “Schindler’s List.” One of Williams’ most acclaimed pieces, the power of the score lies heavily on the violin solo. Though it covers the somber events of the Holocaust in World War II, it has gone on to be used as the chosen music for several competitive ice skaters because of its beauty. Nonetheless, Miller decided to change the arrangement of the night’s program by following this with a suite from the Harry Potter films.
The most unique feature showcased in the Harry Potter suite is from “Hedwig’s Theme” and that from a particular instrument. The celesta is a keyboard instrument that produces a sound of small bell chimes. It’s well-suited for capturing the mysterious flight of a single, nocturnal bird such as Hedwig. It’s yet another example of Williams’ broad and extensive knowledge of instruments that helps audiences suspend reality before enveloping themselves into Harry Potter’s world of magic.
My personal introduction to John Williams was while watching Richard Donner’s 1978 film “Superman.” Coincidentally, I was no older than my daughter is today when I saw that movie in the theatres. Hearing the ASO play the theme reminded me of how I charged out of the theatre as the score blared through its speakers, and with Williams’ help, I was transformed into the Man of Steel. Just as the memory came to mind, I caught the vision of my daughter waving her arms through the air as she conducted the orchestra from my wife’s lap.
Bravo, Maestro. Not only did she enjoy her first orchestra, but you also helped her conduct it.