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New York Philharmonic and Steven Spielberg Celebrate the Music of John Williams

Credit: Julie Skarratt

What does the imminent horror spread by a shark on approach sound like? Or the globe-trotting escapades of a heroically adventurous archeologist? How do you express the grandiosity of the rebels and empires of a galaxy far, far away?

Considering such ideas, feelings, and concepts he transposed into world-famous and instantly recognizable musical notes over an illustrious career spanning nearly seven decades, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call the 91-year-old John Williams the most legendary film composer living today, with 53 Academy Awards and 73 Grammy nominations under his belt (which he won 5 and 25 of them respectively). 

But what makes Williams one of the ultimate legends of this cinematic art form is not his endless and well-earned awards and accolades—it’s his ability to connect with the audiences as a musical storyteller and activate their universal emotions without language barriers. And that unique gift of his was cause for celebration on Tuesday night in New York at New York Philharmonic’s Spring Gala organized in his honor. 

Credit: Chris Lee

Commemorating their 51 years of friendship and work as director and composer, Steven Spielberg attended the moving soiree for Williams, presenting selects from their renowned collaborations. “Let me start by saying: when the universe was formed, there was something called Big Bang,” said Spielberg. “Another Big Bang occurred in technology when William Kennedy Dickson invented the first movie camera in 1892, working in the offices of Thomas Edison.” He continued, “In those days, all you could see were flickering images and a piano by the silent movie screen. Piano players often improvised accompanying the storyline and cue in when to laugh, when to cry, and even scream.” To Spielberg, it was during that “arranged marriage” between images and music that the audiences fell in love with the movies. “And how far we have come,” he concluded. “How lucky we are to have the great maestro of film music John Williams, performing in front of our movie screens for nearly seven decades!”

Under the baton of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) music director Ken-David Masur (son of the late great Kurt Masur, making his New York Philharmonic debut), the orchestra started with the “Superman March” from “Superman” (1978), alongside a short film montage dedicated to the life and career of Williams. “This is an orchestra that meant so much to me and my family,” said Masur, adding that he met Williams for the first time in the very building where he was now conducting. “He’s become a colleague. His life is a gift to us all with over 100 scores.”

Credit: Chris Lee

Masur and the NY Phil then continued with excerpts from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) as the orchestra’s chromatic strings gloriously swelled until they resolved into those magical five notes that have become synonymous with Spielberg’s minor-key sci-fi-drama. After “Scherzo for Motorcycle” from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), a particularly inspired choice followed with the screening and live accompaniment of 2017’s Oscar-winning animated short, “Dear Basketball,” written by the late Kobe Bryant as a love letter to the sport he mastered but was to retire from. Before launching the orchestra into “Throne Room and Finale” from “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977), “You won your legion of fans all over the world because you could create this extraordinary feat of writing over 20 hours of music,” Masur remarked about Williams’ invaluable contributions to the “Star Wars” saga. “It’s hard to choose [one piece], but perhaps we should go to the very beginning.”

No introduction was needed when Spielberg finally appeared on the stage to deliver the abovementioned sentiments on Williams, not when the orchestra broke into the terrorizing dun-dun-dun-dun half-step notes of “Jaws.” “It’s always Jaws Jaws Jaws,” Spielberg joked to erupting laughter. “I made 33 other movies!” The most animated part of the concert was when Spielberg wanted to demonstrate what his movies would look and feel like without Williams, whom he called “the maestro of maestros, my storytelling partner, my dearest friend.” The audience got a taste of it with the cave sequence of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” involving the infamous sandbag and rolling rock but no music whatsoever. “John comes in. There is dialogue and sound effects but no music. So now you’ll get to experience what John experiences.” As the sequence played on, Spielberg continued, “[When I] showed this to George Lucas, he said, ‘We gotta get Johnny!’” Naturally, the difference was night and day when the same clip replayed, this time with its musical cues intact. 

Credit: Chris Lee

Spielberg also introed excerpts from “Jurassic Park” (1993), praising Williams’ score for hitting the right ecological themes. “John’s score is reverential and triumphant. His music never makes the dinosaurs seem like monsters or creatures or leviathans. The score gives them all the dignity they’re owed.” When introducing the final sequence of “E.T.” (1982), which played alongside the live orchestra, Spielberg recognized Williams’ score as the main catalyst that brought the audience to tears while he made the bikes fly and sail towards the sunset.

Credit: Chris Lee

The tears continued when Williams finally took the baton from Masur, leading the New York Philharmonic through the scores of “Schindler’s List,” the main “Indiana Jones” theme, and of course, “The Imperial March” from “Star Wars” in encore performances. An elegant dinner with Hillary Clinton followed the concert. To celebrate the reopening of David Geffen Hall—the host venue of the evening—Philharmonic’s principal Trumpet, Christopher Martin, treated the guests to a brand-new Williams composition called “Fanfare.”

“I want to thank maestro Ken-David,” said Williams during the dinner. “Film synchronization is so difficult mathematically. You could be a beat off, and your eye will tell you. And our narrator, Steven Spielberg, spoke beautifully tonight,” Williams continued with some mischief in his voice. “We had a little sound rehearsal in the afternoon, and I had a moment of telling one of the greatest film directors of all time, ‘Steven, you have to speak more slowly because of the acoustics!”

Photo by merrickdb via Instagram

Calling his friend and colleague Deborah Borda, the CEO of the New York Philharmonic, “an inspiration and a leader,” Williams said, “We need so many more of Deborahs, and we need to send them around the world.” Accepting a thoughtful memorial collage from Borda, “Deborah, you’ve been so good to me,” said Williams. “If you’re really being so kind to me because I’m 91, I will now announce that I insist on living to be a 100!”

Spielberg shared with me some personal reflections about the night as the dinner started to wind down. “[An event like this] is the only time for me when I am able to look back and feel nostalgia,” he indicated, with regards to taking a little pause from looking at the future or his next projects. “Because I am always busy moving onto the next thing [like my wife also knows], nights like this is [when it all comes together for me]. When I am moving [onto the next] draft, John [Williams] is always 11th draft for me,” he said, emphasizing that the 11th draft is when his stories find their emotional connection to the audience. “It’s been incredible to be a part of this.”

Photo by mrs_heavy_metal_kettle via Instagram
Photo by rpvee via Instagram
Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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