The Music and Magic of John Williams

SingaporeSingapore  Williams: Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Samuel Phua (saxophone), Jason Lai (conductor), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, 04.24.2015 (RP)

Star Wars:The Phantom Menace: Suite for Orchestra
I. The Flag Parade
II. Anakin’s Theme
III. The Adventures of Jar Jar
IV. Duel of the Fates
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Suite for Orchestra
I. Witches, Wands and Wizards
II. Aunt Marge’s Waltz
Sayuri’s Theme from Memoirs of a Geisha
Theme from Born on the Fourth of July
Star Wars: Suite for Orchestra
II. Princess Leia’s Theme
III. The Imperial March
IV. Yoda’s Theme
Theme from Angela’s Ashes
Escapades from Catch Me If You Can
I. Closing In
III. Joy Ride
Theme from Jurassic Park


I vividly recall sitting in a suburban Pittsburgh movie theater in 1977, spellbound as the text that opens Star Wars appeared on the screen. It was mesmerizing, as was what followed. The Telegraph stated then that “in certain respects it is one of the most exciting [films] ever made.” It was and, more relevant to this review, it was my introduction to the music of John Williams (never having seen Jaws). His film scores have since become part of the soundtrack of our times. And universal, judging from the enthusiastic audience of all ages that filled the Esplanade Concert Hall for this all-Williams concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jason Lai.

Star Wars featured heavily in the program. “The Imperial March,” Darth Vader’s theme, instantly conjures up the menacing figure in black striding through the Imperial Star Destroyer. It was the most dynamic piece on the program. “Yoda’s Theme” was perhaps the most nuanced, owing in no small part to Jin Ta, the SSO’s Principal Flute. He had several solo passages throughout the concert, all beautifully played. The SSO captured the enigma of the Jedi Master, small in stature but wise and powerful, in this often quiet, intense work.

Memoirs of a Geisha and Angela’s Ashes were films about real flesh-and-blood human beings. Williams eschewed using nationalist themes to establish mood and character. In both, Lai and the orchestra set the mood, but it was the soloists that created the characters. Jin Ta evoked the anguish of a small girl sold into the world of the geisha with his flute solos in “Sayuri’s Theme.” Pianist Shane Thilo similarly captured the perseverance and wry humor of the impoverished Irish woman in Angela’s Ashes struggling to ensure her family’s survival. The flip side of the coin was the fictional Harry Potter. The conductor’s baton became a wizard’s wand in a whirl of sound.

Hijinks were the order of the day in two movements from Escapades from Catch Me If You Can, complete with orchestra members snapping their fingers. Saxophonist Samuel Phua, wearing a black Rat-Pack hat, was the soloist in “Closing In” and “Joy Ride.” Cool was called for, and Phua, belying his tender years (b.1997), offered smooth, confident playing backed up by string bass and the vibraphone.

 Williams’ music has to complement plots, actors and dazzling special effects. He achieves this through melody, color and orchestration, thus giving an orchestra ample opportunity to dazzle in return. Lai and the SSO approached the music seriously. Heaven knows that the SSO can let it rip, but volume was kept in check throughout. Lai offered personal insights into the films and the music. The most effective was his description of the theme from Jurassic Park as being in the shape of a dinosaur. So it is, and the audience recognized it instantly, much to their delight. There was one encore, the theme from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The audience wanted more, the perfect ending to any concert.

I have lived outside of the USA for almost 12 years now and never know what might prompt a pang of nostalgia for home. The theme from Born on the Fourth of July did. I have never seen the film, but William’s music for it evokes that of Aaron Copland, which for me is inextricably linked to America. Lai and the SSO captured the style: the SSO’s Principal Trumpet, Jon Paul Dante, also born in the USA, its essence. I expected to be entertained by this concert of John Williams’ film music. I did not expect to be so moved by it, but silly me. Isn’t that what the movies are all about?


Rick Perdian



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