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.”

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?

Quick thoughts on Rogue One (SPOILERS)

I really enjoyed seeing Rogue One on Thursday; as a movie, I think is is better than The Force Awakens. (Though as a Star Wars experience, I don’t think much could top TFA.)

Here are some quick reflections on how my expectations from Wednesday turned out (warning: there will be some major spoilers ahead).

rogue-one Continue reading

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.


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.

Distant Worlds

My husband and I just found out that Distant Worlds is coming to Columbus this weekend!! (And the composer Nobuo Uematsu will be there also.)  We’ve already been once this year, when it came to Pittsburgh.  Here’s what I wrote about the experience back in February:

Last weekend, my husband and I headed to Pittsburgh, just a couple of hours’ drive for us, for the Distant Worlds concert there.  For the non-Maria and Draco obsessed, Distant Worlds is a touring philharmonic featuring music from the Final Fantasy video games.  My husband has been wanting to go for years (and trying to get me to finish playing FFVII for just as long), so when I heard it was coming to Pittsburgh, I bought tickets for us.

I had never been to Pittsburgh before, and I was really pleasantly surprised by the downtown Cultural District.  We easily found cheap parking, everything was very walkable (indeed there were lots of people out and about), and I had trouble choosing where to eat dinner from so many tasty-sounding options.  We had a great dinner at India Palace on 6th St. (good food, not at all crowded) and then walked over to the Benedum Center for the show.

The Benedum is totally elegant and a beautiful concert hall and a great venue for a symphony, but it was a little at odds with the audience, most of whom looked like they were going to a con.  I haven’t seen that much dyed hair all in one place in a while!  Some people even cosplayed; there were several Marias.

All the fandom was actually very refreshing; I am all for getting people who aren’t traditional “classical music fans” into a symphony.  I did have to laugh a little at the two guys next to us who bought a third seat (~$60)for their coats; apparently their world view did not include a coat check.  On our other side was a couple that brought the average age up a bit, and they only looked about 35; they were just some of the few dozen people there that looked like they might not have seen a chocobo before.  I wonder if they were secret FF fans, or simply trying to use season tickets.

The concert itself was great.  The orchestra was composed of mostly local musicians, with Arnie Roth conducting.  The program included lots of old favorites, opening with the Bombing Mission from FFVII.  I LOVED the Chocobo Medley, and Vamo’ alla Flamenco with guest guitarist Shota Nakama was great.  We also got to hear the North American premiere of “Eyes on Me” from FFVIII, performed by Susan Calloway (although my husband prefers this artist for FF vocals), as well as “Blinded by Light” from the new FFXIII.  And we ended by all singing SEPH-I-ROTH! together in “One Winged Angel.”

Overall, it was a totally awesome experience and I would highly recommend seeing Distant Worlds if you are a FF fan, or even just a fan of great orchestral music.  They are visiting lots of cities all across the US and around the world.  And next year will be the 25th anniversary tour, as well.

Happy Hunger Games!

Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard that the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games is coming out this weekend.  Having read and loved the trilogy, I’ve been following the (extensive) press coverage leading up to the opening.

One aspect I am particularly excited about is the movie soundtrack.  There are two different discs being released, a score by James Newton Howard, and a compilation of songs entitled “The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond.”  I haven’t heard the score at all, but I listened to the samples of the compilation, and I’m very intrigued.  The concept was basically to imaging what Appalachian music, the music of District 12, Katniss’s home, might sound like in the future.  I am especially excited for The Decemberists’ “One Engine,” the Taylor Swift/Civil Wars ballad “Safe & Sound,” and the opening track from Arcade Fire “Abraham’s Daughter.” (Here’s a review of the compilation.)  I am unclear, however, exactly what role these songs from the compilation will play in the actual movie, whether they will be featured at all.

Music plays a key role in several parts of the Hunger Games trilogy.  Katniss inherited her father’s vocal talents, but since his death she rarely sings.  Her singing is significant at three different times in the books: her lullaby for Rue after covering her in flowers (I believe this song may be in the score), Peeta’s memory of her singing on the first day of school and realizing he loved her, and later on in Mockingjay when she sings a sad song (“The Hanging Tree”) for the camera, both evoking her state of mind and helping the people of Panem see a softer side of her.

There are two things I was hoping for on the Hunger Games soundtrack that are missing: Lenny Kravitz and Muse.  I think Lenny Kravitz is the absolute perfect Cinna, exactly how I pictured him in my head, and the image in the trailer of him putting the mockingjay pin on Katniss before she goes up to the arena gives me goosebumps.  It would have been cool for him to add his musical talents to the movie as well, and I think it would have worked thematically.  And I guess we are all sick of Muse after Twilight, but honestly I think their songs fit Hunger Games even better than Twilight.  The lyrics and mood of “Uprising” and “Resistance” always make me think of Katniss and Peeta.

On a side note: I am really disappointed at one of the stills that they have chosen to use to promote the movie.  I keep seeing it here and here and here.  I have never shot a bow in my life and even I can see that Katniss’s hand position is WRONG.  She looks like she is about to take her hand off.  If you want people to have confidence in your production, why would you release a photo where Katniss looks incompetent at what is supposed to be her best skill? Edit (3/23/12): This photo came up today on of all places (link).  Someone who has seen the movie mentions that this is her “tracking” pose; note that the string is not yet pulled back all the way, so she is not quite ready to shoot.  Fair enough.  And apparently, Jennifer Lawrence is a convincing archer as Katniss.  But I still think it was a poor choice for publicity picture.