"Music is not really a job, it’s something that the more you practice in it and work in it, the more interesting it becomes. My activities are the result of my good fortune of working in a field that you become more in love with as you go along through the years." - John Williams
I, like most people, have had a lifelong relationship with the music of John Williams. Widely regarded as the greatest film composer of all time, Williams has written more than 100 scores for film and TV, receiving more than 50 Oscar and 70 Grammy nominations in the process. His soaring, neo-romantic music is so iconic and has reached so many millions of people, he is without question the most recognizable composer alive.
In addition to his work as a composer Williams, now 88, has enjoyed a long career as a conductor, having led the Boston Pops from 1980-93 and returning to conduct them every season at both Boston Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, where I saw him amidst an overflow crowd in 2017.
But even Williams was floored when the Vienna Philharmonic invited him to conduct a pair of concerts of his own music at the legendary Musikverein in Vienna, right before the world shut down due to COVID-19. "One of the greatest honors of my life,” Williams said at the time.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be there in person to witness it - the two concerts sold out within hours - but Deutsche Grammophon captured it on both audio and video, both of which are now available for purchase and streaming.
It is difficult to convey in any concise way just what makes the Vienna Philharmonic first among equals. (For a better sense, check out our past reviews from their annual concerts at Carnegie Hall.) From a performance standpoint, they are like the difference between watching an 8k television and an old tube TV: both might be showing the same program, but the clarity, contrast and intensity of the former is beyond comparison. The passion and precision with which they play is breathtaking, pouring every last ounce of energy they have into every note. In short, Vienna is the gold standard, the greatest of all orchestral instruments.
Moreover, the VPO's association with some of the greatest composers in history - they introduced the world to the music of Brahms, Bruckner, Richard Strauss, among others - gives them a special, direct connection to the core lineage of music. Notoriously picky when it comes to who they play - they refused to perform Mahler's symphonies until Leonard Bernstein badgered them into it 50 years after the composer's death - a performance of your music by the Vienna Philharmonic means you have Arrived.
Williams was no doubt aware of this history as he arrived in a snow-laden Vienna this past January. As he ascended the podium on the cramped stage of the Musikverein's Golden Hall, Williams may have been thinking of his longtime friend Bernstein, who stood on that same podium nearly 100 times, a collaboration which yielded legendary concerts of Mahler, Brahms, and Beethoven, not to mention Lenny's own music.
These concerts marked not only Williams' debut with the Vienna Phil, but also his first-ever concerts in continental Europe. (Williams has been a frequent visitor to the UK, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra on many of his best known soundtracks.) Even more remarkable, these were the first concerts in the 180 year history of the Vienna Philharmonic devoted solely to film music.
But, unlike many orchestras who program film music seeking a broader audience, this was no "Film Night at the Vienna Phil." Rather, the VPO - a famously self-governing organization - specifically sought out Williams, recognizing that his music shares a similar soundscape to their core repertoire. VPO Chairman (and first violinist) Daniel Froschauer called the opportunity of performing with Williams a “deeply fulfilling artistic exchange.”
The idea of programming a concert of Willams' music was born a decade ago, when the VPO first played three pieces by Williams as part of their annual Summer's Night Concert, before an audience of more than 100,000 at Schönbrunn Palace and broadcast to millions more. The first time I watched their performance of the Main Theme from Star Wars, I was blown away: the transitions were flawless, the strings dizzying, the brass piercing and perfect. It was clear that the VPO musicians had an affinity for Williams' music that went well beyond a mere summer fling.
Compare the above performance to the one under Williams' baton below. The intensity and precision are still there, but the subtlety, the tension and release Williams creates brings it to a whole other level. (To see just how much enjoyment Vienna gets from playing this music, check out the expression on the violinist's face at 0:37.)
Along with Star Wars, the concert spanned more than five decades of Williams' career: from Jaws to War Horse. After opening with the rollicking, sprightly "Flight to Neverland" from Hook, the VPO impressed with the surprisingly dissonant music from Close Encounters, no doubt drawing on their experience performing 20th century masters like Ligeti and Bartòk. Here, too, we get our first taste of Williams' gift for brass writing, the masterful VPO trumpets and horns soaring high above the strings.
Williams and the VPO were then joined by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who has developed a close relationship with Williams over the past few years, culminating in last year's Across the Stars, for which he arranged many his most famous themes for violin and orchestra. Together, they performed music from Harry Potter, Sabrina, and Far and Away, plus a previously unreleased arrangement of the "Devil’s Dance" from The Witches of Eastwick.
But, when they came to "Adventures on Earth" from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, I found myself welling up with tears. Why was I having such an emotional reaction to this music, which I've heard countless times over the past 40 years? Because this was different. This was Vienna. And they were playing Williams' music with the same majesty and commitment they bring to the romantic masterworks of Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss.
After an intermission, the VPO picked right back up where it left off with the Theme from Jurassic Park, another Williams marvel that I never much appreciated outside its film context. Rich and sonorous at the start, it yields to a blazing fanfare, played with penetrating clarity by the VPO trumpets and horns. The crescendo builds to an almost unbelievable intensity before Williams finally brings down his baton.
The remainder of the concert was mostly devoted to music from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars films, including the Main Title" above, which ended the main part of the concert with a rousing standing ovation.
The “Imperial March” from Star Wars wasn’t initially a part of the evening’s program - Williams' hadn't even brought his conductor's score with him to Vienna - but the VPO's brass section lobbied Williams for its inclusion as a final encore.
“I thought I had already asked the brass to play quite enough big music,” Williams said. "But, at the end of the rehearsal we played it, they had the music, everyone seemed to know it cold. I loved it."
"It was the best performance I'd ever heard," Williams continued. "It had such solidity, such power and force. But not forced. A kind of strength that defines the word. They played it as if they owned it."
Williams admitted he’d been unsure how the Vienna Philharmonic would adapt to playing his music. “I couldn’t have been more happily surprised,” he said after their concerts. “I have to compliment the orchestra on their great virtuosity and fantastic ability to perform all styles of music.”
Williams' legacy in the realm of film music is forever ensured. But, in these concerts, the VPO elevated Williams' scores to something far greater, placing them in the symphonic pantheon alongside Bruckner, Wagner, Strauss and other masters. It was, in short, the ultimate validation: for Williams, for film music, for America's contribution to the world of music and art. My only regret is that I wasn't able to be there in person. (Unlike NYC's performing arts organizations, the VPO has restarted in-person concerts.)
“In these challenging days," Williams continued, "when musicians and audiences around the world cannot come together to share the pleasures of music-making in person, I look back on these very special concerts with great fondness, and I hope that these recordings might give listeners and viewers some measure of the joy I experienced in visiting beautiful Vienna.”
The standard recording of the concert is available for purchase as a CD, and is available on most streaming services. There is also a deluxe edition which includes additional tracks, as well as a Blu-Ray Disc with video of the concert. Or, you can watch selections from the concert (and listen to others) on Deutsche Grammophon's YouTube channel.
More pics below.