LA Phil’s Double-Delight: John Williams Celebration on Dudamel’s Birthday

By Truman C. Wang

John Williams and Gustavo Dudamel in 2015 LA Phil Gala Concert / Photo credit: PBS

John Williams and Gustavo Dudamel in 2015 LA Phil Gala Concert / Photo credit: PBS

Last week’s concert tribute to John Williams was a memorable one.  The famed composer, now 86, is as sprightly and energetic as his timeless musical compositions.  Gustavo Dudamel conducted, but the composer would make a surprise gesture at the end of the evening as magical as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  More about that later. 

The program began with non-film music, Olympic Fanfare and Theme, written for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.  Next up were excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  In reviewing the 2017 Bowl concert, I noted “Close Encounters was probably Williams’ most symphonic and harmonically ambitious work…It deserves to be played regularly on the concert stage.”  The Disney Hall was ideal for this colorful Impressionistic score, played in sumptuous tones by the LA Phil musicians.  Moving from French Impressionism to Teutonic vigor, the Shark Cage Fugue/Out to Sea from Jaws was relentless, punchy and full of good humor as a standalone concert piece.

The audience were treated to scores of other Williams’ film music – E.T., Hook, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Superman (encore) and, of course, Star Wars to end the evening on a ‘force’-ful note. 

Beyond all the pomp, comedy and magic, John Williams’ music is also capable of great emotion, as evidenced in the Theme from Schindler’s List, played poignantly by violinist Simone Porter (a Colburn School alumna) and Carolyn Hove on the English horn.  Cellist Robert deMaine played the Sayuri’s Theme from Memoirs of a Geisha in beautifully tender and loving tones reminiscent of the original performer, Yo-Yo Ma.

Several encores were offered, but one that delighted (and surprised) most was when maestro Williams got on the podium to conduct and the horns started bellowing out a lugubrious rendition of “Happy Birthday” – a musical joke that was passed around to other sections of the orchestra until the whole orchestra picked it up and gave it a brilliant finish.  The work’s dedicatee, Gustavo Dudamel, was the luckiest guy of the week in L.A. who also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.