Williams Tunes Send ‘Em Reeling


There is a reasonable case to be made that the national anthem has no place at a concert with serious intent, music being a universal language and all. But the “Star-Spangled Banner” seemed an apt way to begin a night of music by John Williams, who conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a show called “John Williams’ Movie Memories” at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday and Saturday.

Through his film music, Williams has established his own brand of contemporary Americana, having repeatedly bent the public ear and established a bank of cliches mimicked by other film composers and coveted by tradition-shackled directors. A whole night of his work revealed, as in his previous Bowl appearance, a crafty, comfy musical voice and also one that relies on recurring strategies and mannerisms. Among other things, Williams has a special penchant for fanfares and things Irish, as in writing for “Far and Away” and “Angela’s Ashes.”

On Saturday’s program, a few things were new, and more were borrowed from Williams’ archives. Freshest in memory was a pastiche of heroic-waxing themes from “The Patriot” and bits of his score to “Angela’s Ashes,” including a simple but moving solo melody played by cellist Daniel Rothmuller. Movements from “Celebration 2000,” a Steven Spielberg film commissioned by President Clinton for a New Year’s millennial event, exhibited a skill in warmed-over Copland-ish writing, though turning generic.


Rare hints of abstraction and dissonance, in the service of alien evocation, appeared in music from “E.T.,” swerving into atmospheric Debussy territory and, finally, the famed five-note leitmotif. Come encore time, the hits flowed, from the sadly beauteous theme to “Schindler’s List” (played with lucid grace by violinist Bing Wang) to the cartoony bluster of the “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” themes.

The L.A. Philharmonic could have played this material while half-asleep but gave it proper gleam and professionalism, suiting the neatnik, no-surprise-is-the-best-surprise proclivities of Williams, as composer and conductor. Obviously, the Williams-meets-the-Philharmonic events are crowd-pleasers, as the nearly 17,000 head count on Saturday night attested. Still, it would be nice to hear work from other corners of the vast, homespun realm of film music in this very neighborhood. Williams isn’t the only game in town, king of Americana or not.