Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Music of John Williams - Review

Kenwood House, London


****
Kenwood House and stage

Tucked away on the rarefied borders of Hampstead and Highgate, on a far corner of the Heath, Kenwood House and its grounds have a history of hosting open air concerts that, until a recent hiatus, stretched back for decades. Orchestras would once sit across an ornamental lake, their music bouncing off the water to reach an audience filling a hillside on the other side of the lake.

It’s a pleasure to see the music return to this beautiful park - and even if the idyllic performance space has been shifted from lakeside to a far more commonplace festival arena complete with massive amplification speakers and queue-laden food concessions dotted around the site, there remains no finer way of spending a balmy evening in the capital.

The VIP grandstand may have lain empty, but on a warm Saturday evening, many thousands of ticket-holders had filled the grass in front of the stage to enjoy the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra perform an evening of John Williams’ film score classics. Williams is a prolific composer whose work stretches across 6 decades. The remarkable breadth of his compositions ensured that throughout the two hour gig there were melodies that touched all generations.

Before the main act was underway, Alexis Ffrench entertained the throng with some soulful piano work. But as the sun began to set, and under Benjamin Pope’s baton, the orchestra swung into action with the rousing theme to Superman. If this tune might have been more for the parents on the lawns than their children, a swift segue into Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter franchise had everyone smiling wistfully to Williams’ enchanting tune.

The connection between Williams and Steven Spielberg was evident, with no fewer than seven of the director’s movies featuring in the evening’s programme - and it says much for the composer’s genius that the same man who composed the Raiders Of The Lost Ark theme, a tune that offers bombast and derring-do with almost every bar, could also compose the haunting melody that defined the tragedy of Schindler’s List - with Patrick Savage on violin exquisitely delivering that piece’s solo movements.

Spielberg’s most illustrious peer has to be George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, and in a nod to the endearing success of that particular franchise, Pope offered up four pieces - not just the classic theme and Stormtroopers March (which was the evening’s encore number) but also, in a tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia’s theme too.

The programme also included the Suite from Fiddler On The Roof, with Pope reminding the crowd that the composer had won his first Oscar (of five) for his work on translating Jerry Bock’s score from Broadway to Hollywood - a piece also beautifully supported by virtuoso work from Savage.

Movies - especially those that are global successes with worldwide popularity, have the power to reach us all, with their accompanying scores often evolving into their own standalone cultural reference points, sometimes of iconic status. Williams is one such musical icon, with this warm glorious night at Kenwood serving as a reminder that his music has touched us all.

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