Jaws Potter and the Raiders of the Lost Extra-Terrestrial Jedi
Usually, when the strains of John Williams tickle your ears, you’re munching on $8 popcorn and trying to keep your shoes from sticking to the floor. That was not the case last week, however, when the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, led by guest conductor Erich Kunzel, played a medley of Williams’s greatest hits.
There was something surreal about hearing some of the most famous movie scores ever written inside the glittering Heinz Hall — the booming of the “Imperial March” from Star Wars rattling the theater’s 14 chandeliers. The people who looked most at home were not the season subscribers in pearls and animal-friendly faux fur, but the handful of twentysomethings dressed as Princess Leia and her Jedi escort.
The program began with the bright and brassy “Olympic Fanfare,” one of Williams’s four Olympic compositions. As the last vibrations faded away, Kunzel turned to the audience and smiled. “Isn’t that power?” he said. The rest of the first half’s compositions, excluding the scores for Superman and Harry Potter, stemmed from Williams’s collaborations with Steven Spielberg. The first piece, the theme from Jaws, sent chills through the audience even though the ocean was 400 miles away. Kunzel confided that the next piece, “Bicycle Chase” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, was his favorite. As the strings built to a triumphant flourish and sent E.T.’s bicycle past the moon, it was clear why.
The first half continued with the main theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the movie, scientists confronted with the quandary of trying to communicate with aliens turned to music, playing a sequence of five notes and encouraging the aliens to repeat them. It was on these five notes that Williams based the score. This was followed by Jurassic Park’s main theme, which is surprisingly joyful. (At the beginning of the movie, after all, bringing back dinosaurs still seemed like a really good idea.) Next came “Harry’s Wondrous World” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: a magical piece filled with trills and runs.
The show continued with a soaring rendition of the theme from Superman. Next came the highlight of the first half, the theme from Schindler’s List, which featured a poignantly beautiful violin solo by Louis Lev. Indiana Jones topped off the set with “The Raiders’ March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The second half of the show focused completely on music from Star Wars, beginning with The Phantom Menace and continuing to Return of the Jedi. “Duel of the Fates” from Phantom Menace seemed a bit empty without the London Symphony Chorus, but the Pops’ version of “Princess Leia’s Theme” was awe-inspiring. A surprising encore performance of the jazzy “Mos Eisley Cantina” showcased the brass section and earned the Pops a second standing ovation.
The Pops performed brilliantly — Williams’s pieces are a workout for every musician — and Kunzel was a treat to watch, throwing himself into each piece so much that he nearly jumped off the podium. His baton seemed more like a wand (and not just during the Harry Potter score), drawing piccolo trills and low drumbeats out of thin air. Although the show highlighted the best of Williams’s work, it’s a pity the show didn’t showcase any of his lesser-known scores, like the retro jazz of Catch Me if You Can or the minimalist mélange of The Long Goodbye.