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Monday, May 12, 2008

A night of John Williams music with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and Michael Krajewski

It all started several weeks ago when Eric Wilson asked if I knew of any concerts featuring the music of John Williams: the composer of music for the Star Wars movies, the Indiana Jones trilogy (soon to be quadrilogy), Jaws, some of the Harry Potter films and too many other things to mention. I told him that I knew Williams sometimes conducted concerts featuring his work but I didn't know of any around here off the top of my head. I did attend a concert of Star Wars music performed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at Star Wars Celebration II and I told Eric that it was quite a treat, especially when they played "Duel of the Fates".

As it turned out, Eric was madly doing a Google search for such a concert. And he found one! And lo and behold, there was one scheduled for May 10th!

So long story short, two nights ago Lisa and I, along with Chad Austin and his girlfriend Koren, hooked up with Eric and his wife Kira and their two sons Jake and Ben for dinner at the Red Robin near the new Target store off New Garden Road in Greensboro. And then we headed off to Westover Church to enjoy "The Music of John Williams" performed by the the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Michael Krajewski.

The concert began at 8 p.m. Greensboro Symphony CEO Lisa Crawford took to the stage and welcomed everyone and thanked those who worked to make this concert possible, and she especially made mention of "the 501st Legion" which probably didn't register with a lot of folks in attendance...

Mr. Krajewski noted that 2008 is an Olympic year so it was fitting that the concert started off with the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme", which Williams composed for the 1984 Summer Olympics (and which has subsequently been used for every television broadcast of the Olympics). This was followed with the overture for 1972's The Cowboys (one of John Wayne's later films). And already, we were thrilling to hearing John Williams' music performed by such an amazing orchestra... and a terrific conductor! We all agreed afterward that Michael Krajewski not only did a beautiful job in conducting the concert but he brought a lot of wit and humor to the show as well.

After the music from The Cowboys, Krajewski remarked that the next John Williams piece became world famous for only two notes from it, and how since he lived not far from the beach that every time he came near the water he - along with everyone else who has seen the movie - hears those two notes in his head and thinks of sharks. So it was that the orchestra began playing the theme from Jaws, and for emphasis the two giant screens in Westover's sanctuary were displaying that still from the movie where the shark breaks the surface as Brody is tossing chum into the water.

Following the "Theme from Jaws", Mr. Krajewski discussed the history and importance of music in motion pictures, beginning with the live piano that was often played during silent movies. He also related the anecdote about Hugo Friedhofer, the composer for Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, who was told during production that there would be no need for his music after all because "where would the music be coming from in the middle of the ocean?" Friedhofer told the producer to go ask Hitchcock about "where would the cameras be coming from then?"

The next piece of the evening is one that Krajewski noted is the one that Williams has regarded as his single favorite bit of composition from his long career: the "Flying Theme" from E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. And you know how you gauge how well an orchestra is playing? It's if they succeed in making your eyes well up with tears. Folks, I have to declare that this indeed happened to me during the E.T. music: that particular score has always been very moving for me to hear, and to enjoy it in a live performance was especially overwhelming.

Krajewski then addressed the audience again, and said that there was something he never understood about when George Reeves played Superman on television: it wasn't just the fact that bullets bounced off of him but then he ducked whenever the bad guys threw their empty guns at Superman (I never thought of that before). It was also that nobody - not even Lois Lane "who's supposed to be this ace reporter" Krajewski noted - ever figures out that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person! "I tried this with my wife once," Krajewski told us, and said he tried putting glasses on and passing as a whole different person but "it didn't work".

And with that, the orchestra began playing the "Love Theme" from 1978's Superman. Can you believe it's now been almost 30 years since that movie came out? The screens then showed the Superman-garbed Christopher Reeve, who really did make us believe that a man can fly. This is another piece that I've always enjoyed over the years, and was thrilled that it was included on the program.

Fast-forward twenty-three years, and we came to the next bit of John Williams music: "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. A terrific performance in its own right. But then an actress dressed as Hermione Granger casually walked on stage as the music played, before getting chased through the sanctuary by Dolores Umbridge and Argus Filch! A very neat touch, and that was only the beginning...

Now the concert shifted gears dramatically, and the strings section got a chance to shine with what there is little doubt is the most haunting music that John Williams ever composed: the theme from Schindler's List. Mr. Krajewski remarked that this was not only a film that many people doubted Spielberg could pull off (because he was famous for considerably lighter fare about aliens and dinosaurs) but there was also wonder about what Williams would do with such a powerful film also. It didn't get mentioned during the show, but I've heard Williams say in an interview that Schindler's List was the hardest film he ever scored and also the one that moved him the most to work on.

Now, this one, "Theme from Schindler's List", it breaks me hard every time. And you wanna know why? I'm not gonna share the details here 'cuz that's not the point of this post, but at least twice in my life I've encountered Schindler's legacy... including meeting (long before the movie ever came out) one of the Schindlerjuden. And yes, I know that there were some historical liberties taken with the film Schindler's List. But so far as conveying the tragedy of the Holocaust, I still know of no other film that has ever come close. And the score by John Williams, with its Eastern Europe style that is both mournful and brimming with hope... has there ever been a film score so profoundly moving? I honestly don't know if there has been. This is at once John Williams' finest and most definitive piece, and also the one beyond all reckoning with anything else from his repertoire. Just as Schindler's List stands far apart from anything else of modern filmmaking, so too does its musical score. And I don't know if that's ever been said nearly enough. Mr. Krajewski and the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra got extra-hard and well-deserved applause for their performance of this piece.

Then the tone of the show tilted wildly. Eric and I could hardly believe this next one, 'cuz just a few hours earlier he was telling us how he always loved Spielberg's movie 1941: a film that I've always thought has been horribly misunderstood. Well, the next piece of the evening was "March from 1941"! Me and Eric could hardly contain our giggling at getting to hear this performed live. Incidentally, Krajewski told us that in spite of how poorly 1941 fared in contrast to his other films, that Spielberg regards this as his favorite Williams-composed march. As the orchestra played the screen filled with the image of "Wild Bill" Kelso chomping on a cigar. Think about that: John Belushi's huge mug glowering down from the front of a church sanctuary. Definitely a sight that will be forever etched in my gray matter...

Then came the intermission. We took the time to stand up and stretch, and we talked about how good a show it had been already. About ten minutes later the lights dimmed again. Mr. Krajewski took to the podium and without warning, the orchestra launched into the "Raiders March" from Raiders of the Lost Ark! Not long after they started playing, none other than Indiana Jones - complete with bullwhip - crept his way onto the stage and among the musicians. It wasn't long before he hefted aloft the famous golden idol from the South American temple at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone cheered! And I was seriously expecting to witness some half-naked Hovitos chase Indy across the stage. That didn't happen and I didn't see any snakes, either :-) After the piece finished, Krajewski reminded us that a new Indiana Jones movie was about to come out: "I think it's going to be called Indiana Jones and the Search for Medicare", he joked.

The next bit of music is one that most people have never heard of in its entirety but everyone has listened to part of at least once: the theme music for NBC Nightly News. It's actually called "The Mission" and Williams it turns out has always appreciated having it enjoyed in its entirety. It's a very good piece in the classic John Williams style, and maybe someday there will be a broadcast of NBC Nightly News that features this entire score and not so much bad news: an event that John Williams has said would be "a good news day".

Then came the part of the evening that I think it's safe to say was the highlight of the evening: the music that Williams has composed for the Star Wars movies. Krajewski informed everyone that across the span of six movies and almost thirty years, Williams wrote more than 14 hours of original music for George Lucas' epic space opera: "So I hope you went to the restroom during intermission," Krajewski quipped. He then said that in addition to six movies that there might be a seventh Star Wars movie coming out called "The Sith Hits the Fan". Some mild groaning at that one, heh-heh... :-)

The "Main Theme" from ever Star Wars movie was the first bit of saga music to be performed, followed by "The Flag Parade" From Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. "Anakin's Theme" came next, and then the piece that Eric said weeks ago he was most giddy about hearing performed live: "Duel of the Fates". Even without a choral accompaniment, it's plenty powerful. During "Duel of the Fates" an actress in Princess Leia's outfit from Episode IV: A New Hope - complete with hair buns - made an escape across the stage from fully-armored Imperial Stormtroopers, who then engaged in a blaster fight with Rebel soldiers. This was the first appearance by the 501st Legion during the show and judging from the reaction, it was a huge crowd pleaser.

Then came "Imperial March". The Stormtroopers returned to the stage. And then none other than the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader, angrily strode across the stage, stood on the conductor's platform and stared down Michael Krajewski. Vader personally conducted the final strains of "Imperial March". And it must be said: Darth Vader is not only dangerous with a lightsaber, he's pretty adept at conducting an orchestra too!

When Krajewski finally regained his position (because nobody is going to dispute when Darth Vader wants something) he led the orchestra with "Yoda's Theme" from Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and finished the Star Wars portion of the program with "Throne Room" from A New Hope. As "Throne Room" was winding down, a wild assortment of Stormtroopers, Jedi, generic Mandalore Supercommandos, TIE Pilots, Royal Guards, and Imperial Officers arrived for the finale...

But that still was not the end of the show! After Mr. Krajewski had taken a bow, he left and just as quickly returned, and in an encore led the orchestra in a performance of the "Theme from Superman". During the main chords of it a guy in a Superman costume leaped from the stage, ran to the back of the sanctuary and returned with a "damsel in distress" in his arms.

I'd say that between the musical talent of the Greensboro Symphony, the conducting skill and good banter of Michael Krajewski, and the theatrics by the 501st and everyone else, this turned out to be quite a show. I told Lisa on our way home that it was by far one of the best evenings that I'd enjoyed in quite a long time.

'Course, having good friends to share it with certainly went a long way, too! Here we all are after the concert (in front of what Chad and I realized after this pic was taken is the baptistery of Westover Church)...

(left to right: Eric, Jake, Koren, Chad, Ben, Kira, Lisa, me)


Anonymous said...

1941 is a very under appreciated movie and I'm glad to read that it received a place on the billing :)

You all look great together. This is the first time I've seen what your wife looks like. Lisa is beautiful! You are one lucky guy to have a girl like that.

God bless

Anonymous said...

Chris what is that black thing on your hip?


Chris Knight said...

That's the black leather case for my iPod. Which among other things contains ALL of the Star Wars movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a few other movies that John Williams has composed the soundtracks for (not to mention the soundtracks themselves).

And thanks! :-)

Unknown said...

Okay I have to say I am soooo jealous. A few years back John Williams actually came to OKC to play his many hits and I missed it because I didn't have the money to go. Now that I might have the money I will probably never have the chance to hear him. I only hope I have a chance to hear someone like you did perform his work. Does the show you saw travel? If so do you have a schedule or link you can send or post?

Eric Wilson said...

Crystal, I know it's not exactly close, but Mr. Krajewski will be performing this same show later this year at the Houston Symphony... I forgot the dates, but check out their website for more details..

Anonymous said...

Koren is beautiful. Kira is beautiful. Lisa is beautiful.

I'm a guy so I can't say anything about how bad the rest of you look :D