Houston Symphony shows John Williams is much more than ‘Star Wars’
Houston Symphony

John Williams and epic film scores go together like Memorial Day and mattress sales. And he’s still at it, at age 90, composing the main-title theme for the new Disney+ series “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and scoring the forthcoming fifth Indiana Jones installment.

His six-decade career has yielded no shortage of iconic themes, but Williams’ music also has a certain chameleonic quality that tends to get obscured by all those blockbusters and his mantel full of Oscars (as in, five). Orchestras love programming his music, not just because the promise of hearing Darth Vader’s theme live draws big crowds, but because those of them who choose to delve a little deeper into the catalog can really show off their chops. And if there’s a chorus, so much the better.

And so the remarkable thing that really wasn’t remarkable at all is that the Houston Symphony reached intermission of last Saturday’s concert without playing anything from the “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” or “Harry Potter” films. No “E.T.” or “Superman,” either. True, the season-finale series was reassuringly subtitled “Star Wars and More,” so we all knew how it would end (no spoilers here), but it was the sheer variety on display until then that made the journey that much more enjoyable.

Besides, any time principal Pops conductor Steven Reineke is on the podium is a guaranteed good time. His enthusiasm for the music is obvious and contagious, evident in his broad baton strokes and his adeptness in finding a groove, a skill not all conductors possess. His skills as a raconteur are equally sharp, filling the space between early numbers with tantalizing Williams factoids.

For example, Williams has earned an incredible 52 Oscar nominations, second only to Walt Disney, and has a significant Texas connection: he served at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, where he was an arranger for the band and pianist in the base’s jazz ensemble. Then, a long career in television (“Wagon Train,” “Lost In Space”) begat jobs scoring early-‘70s disaster flicks like “The Towering Inferno” before he linked up with Steven Spielberg beginning with 1974’s Texas-shot “The Sugarland Express.”

That score might have made Saturday’s program, Reineke noted, if it hadn’t been predominately harmonica and steel guitar.

Instead, he opened with perhaps the best-known two-note phrase in film-music history, the growling cello and basses that open the theme from “Jaws,” which layered in Hermmanesque strings and enervated harmonies to end on an appropriately monstrous din. Selections from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — built around the quizzical five-note theme that is central to the film’s plot — and the delectable “Devil’s Dance” from “The Witches of Eastwick” dazzled with Williams’ intricate, awe-inspiring orchestration.

On a more serious note, a pair of seasonally appropriate numbers nodded to great sacrifices from the World War II era. The haunting “Hymn to the Fallen,” from “Saving Private Ryan,” found the solemn chorus supported by hushed military snare and a rich brass chorale, while concertmaster Eric Halen brought two excerpts from “Schindler’s List” to life with a series of meandering, melancholy violin melodies.

After intermission, highlights included a twofer from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” — the dive-bombing “Witches, Wands, and Wizards” and spooky chorus-sung “Double Trouble” — and Thomas LeGrand’s clarinet adding zesty Eastern European flavor to “Viktor’s Tale,” from Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film “The Terminal.” Bittersweet flute and oboe animated “Memoirs of a Geisha” standout “Sayuri’s Theme,” which balanced wonder with deep sadness.

Then, at last, it was time for “Star Wars.” Making optimal use of the chorus, Reineke chose a pair of lightsaber duels from Episodes One and Three (including the very “Carmina Burana” “Duel of the Fates”), creating a volcanic energy thanks to no less than seven percussionists. Say what you will about the flaws of George Lucas’ prequels, but Williams’ score is not among them.

After Reineke recognized a pair of retiring symphony staffers, chorus director Betsy Cook Weber and head music librarian Thomas Takaro, the evening finally reached what amounts to Williams’ “Satisfaction”: the “Star Wars” main-title theme, as exhilarating and triumphant as when the movie opened on Memorial Day weekend 45 years ago. Dipping back to the composer’s jazz roots, the orchestra encored with a sassy and slippery “Cantina Band” that sent everyone off into the summer with smiling faces.

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.

Chris Gray, Houston Chronicle
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