It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that tonight’s season-concluding Toronto Symphony Pops Concert, featuring the film music of John Williams conducted by Steven Reineke, played to a full house clamoring for more.
And yet I was surprised. Film music is the hot new thing in the symphonic world, as orchestras are programming films with live scores all over, including our TSO who played Psycho, Vertigo (as part of tiff) and Back to the Future with live accompaniments. The music may not be new, but the orchestra’s enthusiastic embrace of this repertoire surely is new, especially when they have a champion like Reineke.
While Reineke lives in the parallel universe of pops concerts distinct from the more lofty objectives of the orchestra he performs an important function, as a kind of curator / teacher. Tonight’s concert was an intriguing mix of pure gratification in a few hugely popular selections alongside some more obscure choices reflecting Reineke’s own interests, as he explained recently.
In the first part of the concert we heard excerpts from Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Hook, and Jurassic Park. It’s a powerful exercise to lift these scores out of their films, and play them without the visuals. I wish we could see the films without the music, so that people could see just how much of their emotional response is created in the music.
With the music of Jaws, one of the best-known themes, that thing we sing when we joke about something scary (that back and forth between adjacent notes) misses so much more that we can’t quite replicate, especially the brass.
I was very pleased to be able to listen to some of ET’s score alongside Close Encounters, music that in some resembles two sides of the same coin. With ET we have a film about children, whereas C.E. is more a film about the child in us, even as its score is full of adventurous & dissonant touches.
I pause here to note that even in a concert sampling eleven films scored by Williams, that some of my favourites are missing (JFK? The Patriot? Home Alone? Always? Superman? Harry Potter? Empire of the Sun? War of the Worlds?). But some of my favourites are certainly here. Hook, to be sure, and then we come to that amazing theme from Jurassic Park. I was musing as I stood at the urinal during intermission, listening to people humming tunes from the first part of the concert while peeing (surrendering to one impulse, they give in to another). I was struck by how remarkable that first big tune is in Jurassic Park. Did Spielberg tell him to create something staggering, stunning, breath-takingly beautiful? When you think about it, yes it’s a movie about dinosaurs with unprecedented CGI. But it’s above all a film that unexpectedly balances a reverence for these creatures, the miracle of bringing them to life, with the horror of what they can do. Would we be as impressed by those images without Williams’ stirring tune?
In the second half Reineke dared to probe a little deeper before offering us what we’d presumably paid to hear. Three different examples showed us something unexpected from Williams, in portraits of diverse nationalities:
- The Jewish sounds of Schindler’s List
- The English echoes in the score for War Horse, that Reineke unpacked for us, in speaking of echoes of Vaughan Williams and Elgar
- The Americana in Lincoln, this time via echoes of Copland
And then it was time for Star Wars music, first via episode IV, and then in music from the recent film. You’d think we were at a Rolling Stones concert listening to “Sympathy for the Devil”, in other words, the crowd went wild. I could mention that the concert is being repeated twice on Wednesday May 18th (2:00 and again at 8:00 pm). If you’re curious here’s the link.
Of course we had to have an encore, which took us back to episode IV, for a wonderfully jazzy arrangement of the music from the bar.
Next season there will be more film music including a few more films with live accompaniment. I can’t wait. What would be really radical –and totally awesome– would be to give Reineke a chance to program a concert or two as part of the main season rather than in the “Pops” category. What if he gave us a suite from The Mission or one of the spaghetti westerns, with scores by Ennio Morricone, perhaps alongside some of Herrmann’s music from the Hitchcock thrillers…? And there’s so much more I can imagine, including Rota, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Glass and many other legit composers who ventured into the cinematic world.
I couldn’t help noticing the delight the orchestra took in this music. And it’s contagious.