RSNO’s celebration of John Williams, the master manipulator of emotions, at 90

United KingdomUnited Kingdom John Williams 90th Birthday Celebration: Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Anthony Weeden (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 11.2.2022. (SRT)

Anthony Weeden (c) Giorgia Bertazzi

John Williams – Music from Star Wars, Close Encounter, Memoirs of a Geisha, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Superman, Jaws, Lincoln, Hook, Schindler’s List, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark

I have written recently (click here) about how movie music has been an important part of the RSNO’s year for more than a decade, and they have nearly always had an evening devoted specifically to the music of John Williams. It is an important audience builder for them, and it’s always super-popular, though basically the same every year, with a limited collection of hit tunes reappearing each time.

So why do I still keep going back? Simply because so much of Williams’s is great, and because the RSNO play it really well; and also, they could hardly refuse when it is the big man’s 90th birthday year. Everyone has their favourite of Williams’s tunes. He’s a master manipulator of emotions – that is why he is so favoured by Hollywood directors – and a concert of his music leaves you feeling elated, joyful and overwhelmed by turns. I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing the Superman March – a five-minute sugar high – when it is played with such a glorious sheen on the brass as the RSNO give it, and the sharpness of attack in the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme helps give the music a super boost. But there is also reflection, most obviously in the Schindler’s List theme, played here with introspective warmth by leader Sharon Roffman.

Most people go to gigs like this for the goosebump moments, though, and the RSNO can take a theme like Jurassic Park and make it come to life, from the warmth of the cellos and violas to the cresting trumpets, or the violin workout that is the Harry Potter theme. It all sounds terrific and, to give them credit, every time I go to one of the orchestra’s John Williams evenings I hear something I have never heard played before. Tonight it was Sayuri’s theme from Memoirs of a Geisha, which twinkled with eastern sounds, and music for strings from Lincoln, which sounded like Elgar.

Conductor Anthony Weeden took the music seriously and brought out all the colour with big gestures and broad-brush strokes, while presenter Tommy Pearson kept the audience going with wit and warm gestures, though I doubt we will be seeing his jokes on the fringe.

And there was another reason I wanted to hear this concert: the scheduled John Williams concert in March 2020 was the orchestra’s first gig to be cancelled in lockdown, and there was a lovely sense of closing the loop in hearing them let loose on this music again. Furthermore, the Usher Hall was almost completely full, something that very rarely happened even before the pandemic struck, but which even a few weeks ago seemed like an impossible dream. Hearing the roar of the crowd, and seeing the orchestra receive the ovation (they don’t get cheers like this when they’re playing Brahms!) was enough to make me consider that maybe everything is going to be alright after all.

Simon Thompson

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