Saturday, July 25, 2015

Great Performances: Dudamel Conducts John Williams (PBS-TV, aired July 24, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

PBS’s Great Performances series did a concert special with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a 90-minute tribute to the music of … John Williams. Yes, that John Williams, who after a period in the 1950’s when he lived in New York (where he was born: Flushing, Queens — where did they get those names?) and went to the Juilliard School by day and hung out on the jazz scene by night, becoming an O.K. if nothing special jazz pianist, moved to Hollywood and ended up working as an assistant and orchestrator for Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann (in which capacity he met Alfred Hitchcock — the show’s biographical segment included a photo of Williams with Hitchcock and Herrmann) and other major film composers, which gave him a chance to learn the trade from the masters and ultimately become probably the most successful film composer of all time. Oddly, the movie that (at least according to this show) first established him on the “A”-list was the 1972 adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, based on the Broadway musical with Jerry Bock as composer and Sheldon Harnick as lyricist — but Williams got a “Music Arranged and Conducted By” credit and he made the rather preposterous statement that he had to compose a seven-minute stretch of music, based on Bock’s themes but with a lot of original development required, to cover the opening credits. “Broadway musicals don’t have long instrumental introductions like that,” Williams said on camera — actually they do; they’re called “overtures.” At one point Dudamel referred on-camera to Williams as a “genius,” which is preposterous — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner were geniuses; John Williams is a capable craftsman who writes serviceable and sometimes stirring music for films, but he pales by comparison not only to the giants of the 18th and 19th century but to the great film composers of Hollywood’s classical era (including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose grandeur in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood Williams seems to try to emulate every time he has a subject that requires him to portray heroism).

There was a brief sequence with Williams and Steven Spielberg looking at a Moviola and Williams explaining that he doesn’t like to think about what he’s going to compose for a film until he can see at least a director’s rough cut — which has always surprised me; I would have assumed a film composer would want to start work as soon as the film was in final script form before it actually went before the cameras, but in some cases composers like Max Steiner would come in at an even later stage than Williams and refuse to compose anything until the film was in final cut. Williams also recalled that for the final scene of E.T. he was unable to conduct his orchestra in the strict tempo needed to fit Spielberg’s visuals — so Spielberg made him one of the most unusual offers a director has ever given a composer. He told Williams to stop looking at the screen and just conduct the music as he felt it, and Spielberg would adjust his editing so the film would fit the music instead of the other way around. Alas, that sequence from E.T. was not among the works featured in the concert portions of the program: instead we got an appealing mix of the familiar, the quasi-familiar and the totally unfamiliar. The familiar included the Olympic Fanfare (played by the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets) and accompanying theme, the theme from Schindler’s List (with Itzhak Perlman, who played on the original soundtrack, saying that’s the one piece of music he’s played he gets requests for all around the world, no matter where he appears), the seven-minute arrangement of Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof music mentioned earlier, an orchestral medley from Star Wars (along with a march of the storm troopers for which Williams took the baton from Dudamel and conducted himself; it also featured actors marching across the stage in storm trooper costumes, including one dressed as Darth Vader, and both Charles and I expected the “Darth Vader” to push Williams off the podium and finish the conducting himself with his prop light saber), the infamous tuba solo from Jaws, and — ironically — the theme for the Great Performances series itself, which — previously unbeknownst to me, Williams wrote.

The not-so-familiar and decidedly unfamiliar included two more selections from Schindler’s List, “Remembrances” and “Jewish Town: Krakow Ghetto, 1941” (also featuring Perlman); and three selections from the 2002 film Catch Me if You Can (about real-life con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr., played by Leonardo di Caprio, and the FBI agent assigned to catch him, Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks), for which Williams reached back to his jazz days for inspiration (the film took place in the 1960’s and director Spielberg wanted a score that would sound like it belonged in that period; he also hired Saul Bass to do the credits sequence and Bass came through with a series of geometric animations much like the credits sequences he’d done for Hitchcock, Preminger and other major directors back then). He said he wrote an alto sax solo part with Charlie Parker’s sound in mind, though the player we actually heard, Don Higgins, had a lighter tone, more like Paul Desmond or Lee Konitz — not bad models — than Parker. The three selections from Catch Me if You Can — “Closing In,” “Reflections” and “Joy Ride” — were among the most appealing parts of the program, not only because of their relative unfamiliarity but also because they showed Williams to be capable of sounds other than the big-orchestra “classic” style of most of his film scores. Indeed, the most interesting piece on the program was Soundings, not written for a movie but composed as an occasional piece for the dedication of Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., where the concert took place. Soundings is a self-consciously “modern” piece, and though nothing in it would sound unfamiliar to devotees of Debussy, Ravel or Bartók, it was a welcome breath of fresh air in its musical complexity and made me wish Williams would bring some of that relative sophistication to his film scores. Alas, in an atrocious bit of production the filmmakers actually cut to an interview segment between Williams and Dudamel in the middle of Soundings — the kind of sin committed all too often in TV programs about music.

Probably the lowest point of the program occurred during a piece of music from, ironically, one of the best films included: a piece for children’s choir and orchestra from Amistad called “Dry Your Tears, Africa” (spelled “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” on the film’s page), with the Los Angeles Children’s Master Chorale obliged to keep straight faces while making their way through an interminably sappy piece of writing from a poem by one Bernard Dadié, and Williams attempting a musical depiction of the burden of slavery by ripping off the opening of the “Work Song” from Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (yet another example, like the imitation Wagner of the Star Wars movies — the makers of the Star Wars parody Hardware Wars scored brilliantly by accompanying their interstellar battles with real Wagner, the “Ride of the Valkyries” in particular — of Williams stealing from someone who really was a genius). Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Williams is a “comfort composer,” one who can be counted on to deliver the goods for a mass-market movie (in Lloyd Webber’s case, a mass-market musical) without producing anything too threatening or too ear-bending for a large audience; I’ve liked some of his music, gritted my teeth at the banality of some of his scores, but I certainly don’t confuse him with the true giants of music (or even the true giants of film music, including the now-departed ones he used to work for) and calling him a “genius” quite frankly does him no favors. He’s a competent craftsman, and sometimes an inspired one, and his sensibility is sufficiently middle-brow it’s obvious why mass-market filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas use him again and again.