WASHINGTON, D.C. — A co-worker tipped me off that the National Symphony Orchestra Pops were doing a Williams show, so we snatched up a few of the last tickets for the first of three performances. Last evening, Erica and I got fancied up and headed to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for NSO Pops: The Music of John Williams.
Like many people, Williams’ work, especially Star Wars was the “gateway drug” to classical music. I have seen a few performances over the years that included Williams’ pieces, but never a performance that was exclusively Williams.
Conductor Erich Kunzel began the performance with a brief introduction followed by one of Williams’ Olympic fanfares. After that, Kunzel shared with the audience the beginnings of the Williams-Steven Spielberg collaboration and playfully taunted a pair of late arrivals in the front row. I thought brass overpowered the strings a bit during the main Jaws theme, though.
Moving on, Kunzel introduced the “Bicycle Chase” from E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial and the marvelous “Main Theme” from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The sound of the Tyrannosaurus Rex preceded the performance of the “Main Themes” from Jurassic Park which was followed by “Harry’s Wondrous World” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a pleasant enough piece, but not one of my favorites. Then, without introduction, the unmistakable first notes of “Main Theme” from Superman were played at I got chills. The Pops were really rolling now with all of the bombast of the brass that makes Superman one of the best Williams themes. I will confess I was slightly disappointed that the prelude was excluded though as it builds up wonderfully to the main march. I was pleased that the piece was performed without introduction, as it needs none.
Kunzel slowed things down with the “Main Theme” from Schindler’s List, a theme featuring a violin solo. The first half of the program ended with the upbeat “Raiders March” from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The second portion of the evening was dedicated strictly to Williams work with the Star Wars saga. Kunzel joked that George Lucas had gotten us all confused by starting off with the fourth episode, so he would start from the beginning. “Flag Parade” from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace began the second half, followed by Anakin’s Theme and all of its dark foreshadowing. The highlight of the Episode I score followed with Duel of the Fates, accompanied by a choir of about a dozen people and two performers with light sabers in front of the stage. While the light saber duel was a little amusing and well done, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed with its inclusion. The duel was distracting and suggested that the music doesn’t stand on its own; a notion that I disagree with strongly.
“Across the Stars” from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was next in the program, followed by the intense “Battle of the Heroes” from Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith. Again, performers with light sabers entered the front of the stage for a climatic duel. The piece was performed quite well, as were all the Star Wars pieces. On the whole, the Pops alignment was best suited to the Star Wars music.
The Pops moved into the original trilogy with the “Princess Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Some unnecessary sound effects preceded “The Imperial March” from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back which was appropriately menacing. Performers costumed in storm trooper, tie-fighter and imperial officer uniforms marched to a review by Darth Vader, who naturally force-choked an officer near the end. By the way, I recommend that any Vader characterizations include a performer who is taller than six feet.
The mood lightened with the Yoda’s Theme and then “Parade of the Ewoks” from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Thankfully, no performers came out for either of these themes. The performance closed with the Star Wars theme, played awfully fast, almost Academy Awards telecast fast. For an encore Kunzel returned and offered that you couldn’t do a Star Wars performance without a visit to the saloon, prompting the Cantina music. Though it was enjoyable, the Pops really didn’t have the right instruments to really nail that jazzy tune. The costumed performers also came out and attempted to dance to the music. It looked exactly like you would expect it to.
While I did have reservations about the costumed performers, I still thoroughly enjoyed the evening, as did Erica. The Pops sounded great and Kunzel picked strong selections for them to play. There may still be tickets to performances NSO Pops: The Music of John Williams tonight and tomorrow night which I cannot help but recommend.