A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have a once in a lifetime experience that any film fan or music nerd would kill for. I got to see John Williams conducting some of his most iconic film music, live with my hometown orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I rank it up there with some of the best experiences of my life.
For those who do not know who John Williams is (but who reading my film-nerd blog wouldn’t?), he has composed some of the most iconic film music in the last fifty years. You know his work even if you think you don’t. Music from Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Jaws are staples in our culture. You can’t even watch the Olympics without his music being played every commercial break. He has been nominated for over fifty Academy Awards and has won five. You can only imagine how much I geeked out when I actually got tickets, and believe me, it was a longshot actually getting them. It sold out in minutes.
The night of the concert, I was nineteen weeks pregnant, proudly sporting my baby bump as I waddled downtown in my fanciest pair of comfy shoes and a new Star Wars scarf. Outside the Hilbert Theater, we were greeted by men dressed as rebel pilots from Star Wars. Inside, the place was a buzz, filled with people for the sold out show. Along the lobby were movie posters of the various films Williams’ music is featured. All around, were other people in costumes, and lucky patrons decked out and taking pictures with them. I was able to snag a selfie with Boba Fett and a few others. Darth Vader and R2D2 were very popular.
As time came for the concert to start, you could feel the anticipation in the air. When John Williams came out, the whole audience burst into applause and stood. We were all so incredibly honored that he chose our city, our orchestra for this wonderful event. All the money made from the evening would go right back to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Then, finally, came the music. I had heard some of these pieces a thousand times, but hearing them live, coming straight from Williams’ direction was amazing. The music felt so alive, organic and thriving more than it does in a theater or out of speakers. And without the film’s images to distract, you’re able to focus on subtle nuances. I think Williams is a fan of bringing out the lower brass section out, or perhaps there was a very enthusiastic trombonist. I can’t blame him. And the way Williams would sometimes cut the orchestra off with a slow dip of his hand until the music seemed to just fade away was magical.
One piece that blew me away like never before was his selections from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have loved this film since I was a kid, but the first time I saw it and heard this music was probably over an old, scratchy VHS borrowed from the library. To hear this music live, it felt so much more powerful. It was raw and almost primal in a way that I did not expect and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard (second only to my son’s first laugh). I soaked up every note and silently wept the entire song. I should’ve known to bring tissues.
In between songs, Williams would often tell us a little story about working with Spielberg or how the music came to be. One of my favorites came as he introduced the music from the Indiana Jones movies. He was about do a piece from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade entitled Scherzo for Motorcycle. Williams explained that he only named the piece after seeing the completed film. He said he was so proud of this fun piece he wrote to go with the scene where Indy and his father are being chased by Nazi’s on motorcycles, but when he saw it completed, there were all these loud motorcycle sound effects over his music and he felt like the joke was on him. Scherzo means joke, so Joke for Motorcycle. It was nice to hear the music without rumbling engines and explosions.
Knowing his audience so well, Williams saved all the music he chose from the Star Wars films until the very end. Before he began, he enjoyed telling us how much he enjoyed writing music for Daisy Ridley’s character in The Force Awakens. When he introduced Rey’s Theme, he gushed on about how much he loved raising her up in the film. He said that before he agreed to write the music for The Last Jedi, he made sure Daisy would be in the film again. It was so sweet to see how much he loves his work and working with certain actors and characters.
As the last song was wrapping up, Throne Room and Finale from Star Wars, I clung to every note and wished it wouldn’t end. When it finished, the audience gave a loud, long standing ovation. None of us were ready to go home, we ached for more. And Williams delivered! He came out and performed Han and the Princess and then ended the night with The Imperial March, which ended in another standing ovation. We still wouldn’t sit. He graciously came back to bow over and over, he received flowers, waved to us as long as he could. And finally, as we just wouldn’t stop clapping for him, he put his hands together, leaned to the side and mimed that he needed to sleep. We laughed as we cheered. We were so thankful that he gave us such a fantastic evening.
When Mr. Williams visited my hometown, he had just celebrated his 86th birthday. Understandably, there were times as he stepped up and down from the podium that he seemed a little unsteady. I think the whole audience was praying he wouldn’t fall at one point. But as he conducted, his whole body moving with the music, he was ageless. Saying he was like a duck in water is too simple, but it works. It was such an honor to see him, to see him work in such a lovely environment and I’m sure most of us will never see it again. To see him conduct some of his latest Oscar nominated music was a truly rare treat, one that I’ve proudly told my son about already. If I’m lucky, one day I can tell my grand kids about it. And they can roll their eyes and call me an old nerd. I don’t mind. It was amazing.