John Williams’ career as a composer dates back to the 1950s, when he started as a pianist and arranger/orchestrator. He played piano for Henry Mancini. He arranged for the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. He scored television shows.
By the early 1960s, the television shows were catching notice, especially the science fiction shows: “Lost in Space,” “Land of the Giants,” “The Time Tunnel.” He moved into scoring movies.
In 1975, he scored Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” and Williams was an “overnight success” at the age of 43.
Some critics have derided his music for being bombastic (the critic Pauline Kael notably), but I suspect those critics tend to only hear the musical underscore when it gets loud.
Saturday night, the West Virginia Symphony offered convincing proof otherwise with its performance of Williams’ music for Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” playing along with the movie.
The orchestra’s new conductor, Lawrence Loh, navigated the score with ease, keeping the orchestra in seemingly perfect coordination with the action on the screen. The screen itself was large and the projection was startlingly vivid. It even had English subtitles which helped in following the dialogue, since the goal was to keep the orchestra in prominence (This doesn’t happen in the theatrical version of movies. The underscore gets cut back so no dialogue is covered up.).
Not that Williams doesn’t let the orchestra soar. The famous trumpet theme goes ripping into the top of the players’ range like a brass-playing high wire act.
But in this setting with live music working with the film, I was struck by the economy of the Williams/Spielberg collaboration. The orchestra sits for long periods of dialogue. Loh had a stool, which he sat upon while keeping a watchful eye on his monitor and the score for the next entrance of the ensemble.
Williams has always been a musical omnivore. If he needs moments of brassy heraldry, he brings that replete with thumping percussion, muscular chords of four trombones and tuba and swirling runs in piccolos and violins.
But with the dinosaurs, he builds suspense from the non-tonal world of the mid-20th century: shimmering half-step clusters in high violins, rumbling octatonic scales (a non-tonal scale of alternating half-steps and whole steps) in bassoons, cellos and basses or guttural growls of muted trombones and tuba. The movie opens with this along with a slow thump of a deep drum that makes the gathering dread as much felt as heard.
When Nedry, the computer systems guy who is selling out Jurassic Park by stealing embryos of the dinosaurs, goes on his ill-fated mission to escape to the docks, the music is loaded with these little ideas and driven but the insistent drumming ratchets up the suspense by going faster by starting and stopping with each new calamity Nedry crashes into.
For the tour through the Jurassic Park lab near the beginning of the film, Williams invoked his 1960’s past. The music is weirdly like a Looney Tunes score, thinly scored, full of twittering woodwinds, glissando in the trombones, awkward bassoon walks, suspenseful pauses on diminished chords and wisps of solo violin.
Much of the music is quiet and lovely. The wonder of Grant and Sattler’s first view of the dinosaurs is one of the Williams’ greatest moments. A noble tune in the cellos resting on a bed of B-flat major harmonies.
By the end of the movie that theme gets played by bass and alto flutes, celesta and a memorably quiet bit of solo piano.
The local orchestra played this all with panache. Rhythms were taut. Textures were detailed vividly. Occasional slips in the trumpets showed the effect of those high-wire acts to which Williams subjects the brass, and that I was seeing the second show of the day.
Orchestras are trying all sorts of ideas to grow new audiences. This one seems to be working. The orchestra reported crowds over 1,200 for the two concerts Saturday afternoon and evening at the Clay Center.
The best line of the night wasn’t on screen. I heard a little girl say, “What happened to Mr. Arnold (Samuel Jackson’s character)?” She paused for a moment and said, “I think he got eaten.”