John Williams, Live

If I am a musician at all, it is thanks to John Williams.

John Williams, the five-time Oscar winning composer, who created the soundtracks of so many childhoods with the scores to Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones…ok, I think you get the idea.  I listened to his music on repeat in high school.  He made me love marches, appreciate the French horn, and put me to sleep many nights with his “Hymn to the Fallen.”

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Yeah, this guy.  John Williams conducting at Hollywood Bowl By Alec McNayr (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I have had the extreme privilege of seeing John Williams himself conduct the world-class Cleveland Orchestra three times in my life.  Most recently, I saw him conduct the orchestra at their beautiful Severance Hall in the cultural heart of Cleveland.  I bought these tickets eight months in advance and had to purchase a subscription to other orchestra concerts to even get a chance to do so.

It was so worth it.

The evening started with “Sound the Bells! (a classic fanfare) and progressed through a series of hits until finishing with the highlight of excerpts from Star Wars.

 

There were a couple of fun surprises for me.  I was familiar with all the pieces except the Suite from The BFG, which turned out to be a charming, fantastic piece featuring a lot of flutes and the use of a tuba mute, which I don’t think I’d ever seen used before.

Tuba Straight Mute
Yeah, this thing.

Another pleasant surprise was the theme from the ’90s remake of Sabrina, which I honestly forgot he scored.  I promptly went home and watched the movie again on Amazon Prime.  I love that movie, and my husband had somehow never seen it,

I was also pleased to hear some excerpts from Jaws.  I think this is one of his scores that tends to get overlooked; everyone is so familiar with the ominous two-note shark motif that the rest of the score gets forgotten.  Check out “Out to Sea,” which is a jaunty little nautical tune.

Of course, the highlight of the night was the Star Wars music.  It was great to hear some of the new stuff, and for one of the encores they played “Han Solo and the Princess.”

The night really lived up to my expectations.  Williams is such a genial guy, and he spoke about nearly every piece.  I think he enjoyed conducting as much as the audience enjoyed listening; he said that performing with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall was a “bucket list” type thing for him.  It was just perfect that he was able to be here for the orchestra’s 100th season.

What’s your favorite piece or score by John Williams?  Can you even pick a favorite?

How NOT to Photoshop

I went to Blossom Music Center again last weekend for the end of their Summer Festival.  It was a family pops concert, featuring fun things such as “Let It Go!” from Frozen (everyone sang along) and Pat Sajak performing an orchestrated version of “Casey at the Bat.”  Plus there were fireworks after.

As I have mentioned before, Blossom is the summer home of the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra.  It’s an incredible venue, and the performances are also incredible.  So, I was a little tickled by their program, which is handed out to everyone at the entrance before every show.

Sorry for the smears, etc...we were eating bbq during the performance.
Sorry for the smears, etc…we were eating bbq during the performance.

It’s a very good representative photo, and the sky is very pretty…until you realize…hmmm, those people on the blanket in the foreground…

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And it only gets worse the longer you look at it:

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There are probably more!  Honestly, these other ones are so subtle I probably wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t seen the trio on the blanket duplicated right next to each other directly in the foreground.  And the quality of the Photoshopping is fine; at least, I can’t tell which is the real group and which is the duplicate.

Anyway, I just got a kick out of it and figured I’d share 😀

Sci-Fi Spectacular

Despite predictions of rain, Sunday evening was a beautiful time to catch the Cleveland Orchestra from the lawn at Blossom Music Center.

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The lawn at Blossom (2013)

I was even more excited because the program was called “Sci-Fi Spectacular!”  There’s nothing like hearing a world-class orchestra play the themes to my favorites movies (mostly, I mean Star Wars).  I first attended this set back in 2009, and it was just as great this year as it was then.

WP_001066The evening featured Jack Everly as conductor–he was wonderfully enthusiastic, even he if couldn’t remember if Superman is a DC or Marvel character–and George Takei as narrator.  Being on the lawn, I was quite far away and couldn’t see him all that well.  But he was really wonderful; he spoke about how Star Trek: TOS used scifi elements to describe contemporary human issues, and even push the boundaries of TV as a medium.  The Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for the world, and so different characters represent different parts of the world, all working together in their mission.  Mr. Sulu was to represent all of Asia, so rather than go with a name that would be tied to a specific Asian country, like “Kim” or “Tanaka,” Gene Roddenberry chose the name of a sea near the Phillipines–Sulu–because a sea touches all shores.  You can tell he’s told that story many times, but it was really well done.

Takei spoke the intro to Star Trek (to boldly go, etc.), and also later recited the speech that Klaatu gives to the people of Earth at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Which basically boils down to: Earthlings, get your shit together, but phrased much better, and it resonates even today.

The program featured no less than SIX pieces by John Williams: Star Wars’ Main Title, End Title, and Duel of the Fates (with chorus!), Superman‘s Theme, and suites from E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Stormtroopers came out onto the stage at intermission; when the orchestra returned, Everly dismissed them, saying, “These aren’t the musicians you’re looking for!”  He also managed to sneak in a quick performance of “Mad About Me,” which you may know better as the Cantina Band song.  FYI, you can play this song on the jukebox in the cantina on Tatooine in SWTOR.

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Star Trek did not get overlooked, either.  They played a medley of all the TV show themes (except Enterprise–I guess everyone wants to forget that theme), and some of Michael Giacchino’s wonderful scores to the two recent Star Trek movies.

Another fun treat was the conductor’s arrangement of various sci-fi TV themes, including Lost in Space, X-Files, The Jetsons, The Twilight Zone, and Stargate, plus some others I think I am too young to recognize.  They gave away a lightsaber to an audience member who could name at least 4 of the titles.

The program was rounded out with the iconic “Also sprach Zarathustra” featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the theme from Somewhere in Time, which is a movie I had never even heard of before.  The soprano Kristen Plumley also contributed her operatic voice to several of the pieces, even coming out in a Star Fleet officer’s uniform for the Star Trek theme.

And as the lights came down on Star Wars‘ End Title, the conductor’s baton lit up, and suddenly he seemed to be conducting with a lightsaber –a great ending to a great show!

 

My annual Christmas tradition got an upgrade

I am a huge Christmas person, so there are many things I enjoy doing every year…putting up a (real) Christmas treebaking cookies with my mom, watching bad TV Christmas movies, etc.

I love to kick off the Christmas season every year by watching Home Alone on Thanksgiving.  This got started when I was young, because it was regularly on TV that day.  It’s a great movie, and by now I’ve seen it many, many times.  My husband and I frequently quote it to each other; in fact, just the other day we ordered pizza and got “a lovely cheese pizza, just for me.”  We actually own 2 copies of the DVD.

HomeAlone3I didn’t watch Home Alone on Thanksgiving this year.  That’s because I had already bought tickets for this: Cleveland Orchestra Celebrity Series–Home Alone.

Last Wednesday, we got to watch Home Alone on a big screen in Severance Hall, accompanied live by the Cleveland Orchestra.  That’s right, the Cleveland freaking Orchestra.

It was a fantastic performance.  Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.  The orchestra was nearly flawless, and it was a nice touch that they were joined by the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus for the scenes with Marley’s granddaughter’s choir in the church, and also for singing “Somewhere in My Memory” over the closing credits.

In a pleasant surprise, the performance was conducted by David Newman, himself a prolific film composer (he did a little movie called Serenity), and son of Alfred Newman.

HomeAlone1

There were some interesting aspects to performing a live score along with a movie.  The sound levels were a little strange because the movie had to be fairly loud so the live music wouldn’t cover it.  It was a little disconcerting at first, because Home Alone opens with the commotion of “15 people in this house.”

In addition to reading off the score, the conductor was watching a small screen that was synced to the big screen.  It used tracking lines of various colors and flashing circles to cue entrances and tempos.  Pretty fascinating; I’m sure it’s a little more complicated than a normal orchestral performance, but Mr. Newman probably has some practice with this kind of thing.  Everything seemed to go really smoothly.

The score to Home Alone is one of my favorites by John Williams, my favorite composer.  I think it tends to get overlooked in his oeuvre.  But it complements the emotion of the movie so well, managing to be creepy, jolly, frantic, determined, and many other things at various times.  Especially in the strings, the use of glissando and pizzicato really contribute to the strange idea of “ominous Christmas music” that I love.

A note from John WilliamsMy favorite musical part of the movie occurs when Kevin leaves the church where he was talking with Marley to go home and prep for the burglars.  The children’s choir in the church has been singing “Carol of the Bells,” and as Kevin starts running it transitions into a more rock feel, with drums and a driving bass line, while still building on the carol’s theme (“Setting the Trap” in the soundtrack).  It’s just such a clever, well-done transition; I appreciate it every time I watch the movie, and it was even better live.

The orchestral parts of the score are also interspersed with classic Christmas songs (White Christmas, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree)  in the movie–the orchestra did not play these live, obviously, but they really add to the tone of the movie also.

After the movie, the orchestra and chorus gave us a little encore with a Christmas song.  The performance was a great way to get in the Christmas spirit, and there were lots of families there that seemed to enjoy it, too.

Rite of Spring

I was back at Blossom over the weekend to see a joint performance of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Joffrey Ballet.  It was a wonderfully varied program, with precious little “classical” ballet.

They began with Interplay, choreographed by Jerome Robbins.  This was probably my favorite piece of the night, as it was light-hearted with colorful, fun costumes.  Next was Son of Chamber Symphony, to music by John Adams; it was pretty much what you would expect from a contemporary minimalist performance.  Then, we enjoyed the lovely Adagio set to music from Spartacus; it was choreographed on the two performers, and it showed.

After the intermission was the main event: Rite of Spring.

Joffrey Rite of Spring

This legendary ballet was first performed in 1913, and it was so revolutionary it caused a riot in the theater.  Imagine a ballet having that kind of impact today!  Nijinsky’s choreography was a dramatic break from classical ballet, using jerking movements and primal stomping.  Joffery’s reconstruction is nearly true to the original, after years of research into the original costumes, scenery, and choreography.

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As for Stravinsky’s score, it was similarly revolutionary.  You have almost certainly already heard it: it was featured in Disney’s Fantasia, accompanied with scenes of prehistoric Earth and dinosaurs.  Honestly, I used to fast forward through good portions of these scenes, because they are fairly intense.  I loved dinosaurs when I was little (the stegosaurus was my favorite), so I did not relish watching them all die to frantic drumbeats.  I just tried to watch the clip on YouTube, and it still upsets me!