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Philharmonic paying tribute to John Williams

Orchestra to play themes you know from blockbusters

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic will be tribute to composer John Williams on Nov. 12.

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published November 9, 2022

On March 26, Andrew Constantine conducted the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra in perhaps their most popular concert ever, a 90th birthday tribute to the great film composer John Williams. Symphony orchestras all over the world did likewise. 

On the heels of September’s performance of Jurassic Park at Foellinger Theatre, the Philharmonic’s guest conductor Caleb Young is back with a surprise, another Williams tribute on Nov. 12, this one downtown at the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center.

close encounter

Entitled Big Screen Blockbusters, the tribute to Williams will feature themes we all know and love, including those from the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter films. But this time, Young is determined to go into some deep cuts and introduce us to the music of composers who influenced Williams.

Young has worked with the Philharmonic for years, but these days he lives in Berlin from whence he travels and conducts orchestras across the U.S. and Europe. 

As we explained in our article on Sept. 8, over the last couple of years, Young has become assistant conductor to Williams. Recently, Young helped Williams prepare for concerts with orchestras in Los Angeles and Berlin. And once again, no, Williams isn’t coming to Fort Wayne: It’s Young bringing the cinematic magic to us. We caught up with Young in Germany, over Skype, and he filled us in.

what to expect

The program kicks off with Williams’ arrangement “Tribute to the Film Composer,” which Williams premiered when he conducted the orchestra for the 2002 Academy Awards. 

It’s a thoroughly cheeky 4-minute, 30-second whirlwind, quoting 25 themes from film composers he admires most, from Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Titanic, The Pink Panther, Doctor Zhivago, Rocky, The Godfather, and a whole lot more, from all the greats: Morricone, Herrmann, Conti, Barry, Horner, Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman, Steiner, and more, plus themes from his own works, E.T., Jaws and Star Wars, because heck, he’s John Williams. 

“Just imagine how he stitches all of those together,” Young laughed. “It’s one of the most brilliant arrangements in medleys, I think, of all time.”

After 65 years of orchestral soundtrack history in 4½ minutes, Young will steer the orchestra into a suite from Williams’ score for 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the one with that indelible five-note electronic motif. (Star Wars, another unforgettable Williams score, came out the very same year.)

Next, the orchestra takes us back to before Williams’ time, with a suite from Sunset Boulevard (1950), scored by Franz Waxman. Young explains that it’s a stellar example of the kind of music Williams drew inspiration from when he started working in television and film in the 1960s.

“People agree that it is one of the best soundtracks of all time,” Young said of Sunset Boulevard. “Waxman is someone that I want Fort Wayne to hear. It’s that really old-school, pure Hollywood orchestra sound.”

Then we’ll hear Williams’ “With Malice Toward None” from Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, featuring the Philharmonic’s Andrew Lott on trumpet.

Next, Young takes us to 1917, not to Hollywood, but to the British concert halls, for “Mars, the Bringer of War,” the first movement from composer Gustav Holst’s monumental suite The Planets

The audience will instantly recognize how this piece influenced Williams’ themes for Star Wars, and Young reports that Williams admits as much. 

Young follows this with the “Imperial March” from Star Wars, and the connection is made.

And then a suite from … Fiddler on the Roof

It turns out that when this beloved musical by Jerry Bock was made into a motion picture in 1971, it was Williams who arranged the score for the Hollywood orchestra. The Philharmonic’s Johanna Bourkova-Morunov will supply the fiddle.

Then, it’s back to Williams’ science-fiction blockbusters from the ’70s, with the suite “E.T.: Adventures on Earth.”

Coming along in short order are Williams’ themes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a Chris Columbus film; “Marion’s Theme” from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, another film written by George Lucas; and a theme from a forgotten Spielberg comedy, 1941.

Next is Williams’ suite from Far and Away, a Ron Howard epic. 

“I think we have an opportunity here to play some things that folks don’t know and frankly they should know,” Young mused. “Especially this Far and Away chart. It’s such a monumental piece of music. That piece was something that I learned with John here in Berlin. It’s got a really fun Irish jig in the middle of it, and it’s got a glorious ending, like usual.”

The evening closes with the biggest blockbuster, the 30-minute-long suite from Star Wars

“This is the cornerstone of the program,” Young said. “I love presenting the whole suite when we have the opportunity. But as a conductor, you have to be careful programming around something like this because you have to think about the orchestra’s endurance.” 

Young explains that, in his experience, Williams’ film music is more demanding on the musicians than that of any other film composer. 

“But yeah, the Star Wars suite is truly a joy to conduct and obviously audiences love it.”

Utilizing downtown theater

Before we wrapped up, I asked Young how all this comes together. 

A Williams film score is as much as two hours long, and he’s written more than 75 of them. 

What Williams and other composers do is take the best themes from their scores and distill them down into short suites that orchestras can perform conveniently on stage. 

Williams was particularly savvy with the Star Wars suite by making it available at a low cost, without steep rental fees. That helped orchestras and audiences the world over get even more hooked on him.

Young is excited the Philharmonic is performing this concert at Saint Francis’ under-utilized Performing Arts auditorium that seats 2,000, the other 1920s grand theater just a few blocks from the Embassy. 

“It looks beautiful,” Young said. “I hope it brings some new audience members, too. Everybody go get some drinks and dinner, and then come here for a great concert.”

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