We review John Williams’s no-star wars

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

 

….No discredit to Williams, a capable conductor with years of experience as director of the Boston Pops. No credit whatsoever to the Vienna Phil, an orchestra that has guarded its pedigree for almost 180 years, only to squander it on music that was written for the enhancement of moving pictures and has, with few exceptional tracks, no independent existence…..

 

Read on here.

And here.

In The Critic here.

In French here.

In Spanish here.

In Czech here.

More languages to follow.

 

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          • My reasoning is fine.

            The acceptance of systemic racism in the U.S. by many people is not.

            The deprecation of Black people by so many others, as symbolized by forty two (as of when I composed this) thumbs-down for a comment supporting Black people, is all too predictable.

            This is not an attack on the Vienna Philharmonic–it would be a bonus if it were to bring attention to BLM.

            I am calling out those who accept systemic racism and oppose supporting Black people.

            There are too many of them. Racism is a cancer in U.S. society. Many people in the U.S. have not let go of the fact that the traitorous Southern states lost their insurrection, over 150 years ago. The repercussions of this white supremacist perfidy continue to today.

          • Waving the BLM flag indicates support for the BLM organization/movement, which has a published agenda. Not supporting the full BLM agenda is not the same as hating black people or accepting systemic racism. No doubt some of your thumbs-downers are racists in the old-fashioned sense, but some may have had other objections. I am not the only person to perceive that BLM shares characteristics with doctrinaire religion.

          • I disagree.

            There are a few people, I grant you, who, like you, may parse the BLM organization/movement’s agenda to find areas of policy disagreement.

            There are far more people who just do not support Black people. Most of them have never, and will never, read the agenda; they just act based on their negative prejudices, and based on what propaganda they have read in, and heard from, the right-wing propaganda machine.

            We have plenty of evidence of this just in comments posted to this very website. If I felt like it, I could search for several of them just in recent weeks, and post links right here. In many ways, certain commenters herein are a microcosm of the problem with racism in the country.

            Note that this thread started with a negative comment about rap music and BLM. Note the implied subtext.

            Now, it is entirely possible to dislike hip-hop without being racist. It’s trivially easy to say so without suggesting any racial bias.

            In fact, I’ll do so right now. I happen not to like much of it, based mainly on structural reasons: I am not fond of sampling as a primary structural element of music. (I’ve never warmed up to Berio Sinfonia for a similar reason.) Even though I recognize and respect the historical reasons behind sampling in hip-hop music, it still doesn’t do much for me.

            (Calling it “rap music” is a misnomer; it’s a bit like calling an aria “spinto music” or “heldentenor music.” The word “rap” describes the delivery of the spoken word; hip-hop describes the genre. But I digress.)

            The United States never had the equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. Reconstruction after the Civil War collapsed under the onslaught of the very white supremacists who initiated the illegal insurrection to protect their ownership of other people. Having lost the war, and therefore the right to own people, they essentially won the peace by imposing American apartheid in the states of the former Confederacy for the next 100 years.

            Systemic racism exists to this very day. Iconography of white supremacy exists to this very day. White supremacists are active to this very day. There are people who still believe that the South will rise again. One of them slaughtered nine people in a church in Charleston several years ago, in an attempt to initiate a race war.

            Many people oppose BLM, because they perceive equal rights for nonwhite people as an existential threat to them and their way of life.

          • Thank you. I appreciated this response, and your educational digression on hip-hop. All types of music deserve at least an attempt at respectful understanding before judgments are formed. The original comment, I think, purported to be about appropriateness, but, yes, it certainly has a racist spin.
            I did some time ago read the BLM’s original mission statement with an open mind, not to find policies to disagree with, but simply to be better informed about an important issue. There were one or two things I didn’t like. But I’m still open to argument on them!

          • You’re welcome.

            Even more important to me than minutiae such as details in the mission statement, is the big picture.

            Systemic racism is baked into the very fabric of American life.

            White supremacist iconography permeates all of America. Much of it, of course, is located in the old Confederacy, but also exists elsewhere, just as much of America’s racism is located in the old Confederacy but also exists elsewhere. Much of the iconography is installed in conspicuous locations, such as in front of court houses and statehouses, with the express intent of intimidating and insulting our fellow Black citizens.

            We have military bases named after traitors to our country. Why on earth should we have a fort named after A.P. Hill? Or many other army bases and such that are named after seditionists?

            Racism was written into the Constitution. The Reconstruction Amendments (#13-15) did a great deal to ameliorate this, but biases remain.

            Redlining was official policy a century ago. Its poisonous effects affect all of us to this very day. Just look at the disparities in different neighborhoods in most cities–it was mapped that way on purpose.

            Racists continue to poison our polity, including many commenters on this blog. Just watch the count on the thumbs-down–that’s one way that they express their displeasure at being called out for their racism, just as they did to my initial postings in support of BLM.

  • Let’s not mince words. The ensemble playing on this record is really bad. Strings, winds, brass and percussion frequently come apart at the seams, almost to the point of train-wrecking. Not that I’ve ever considered Vienna a really “tight” orchestra, but hey, a march is a march, Vienna plays tons of marches, polkas and their own form of pops. No excuse to play the Star Wars theme badly. Love it or hate it, orchestras all across the world play this piece and way better. Including Berlin, London, City of Birm, Hamburger and much more. I’m just surprised Williams and his producers allowed this sloppy record to be released!

    • I heard the whole recording, heard it again after your post, and have no clue what you are on about. The Imperial March is as tight as it gets, never heard a better recording of it.‚Ensemble playing is bad‘? Where exactly? The whole album? Nonsense.
      It‘s a beautiful live rendition of William‘s music under his own conducting. Vienna Phil plays marvelous with their unmatched richness of sound. The horn group alone is stellar. No idea where your bitterness about it stems from. Are you an LSO player, now dethroned by the Viennese?

      • I love Vienna, just saying, there’s a surprising amount of bad ensemble. And no, I’m not a member of either orchestra, just someone who grew up knowing and loving this music. Used it, like many other kinds of music, as a gateway into learning about the composers Williams idolized and emulated for his film scores, and so much more. I learned about Holst, Prokofiev, Wagner, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and more. So, I appreciate the glorious Vienna sound, believe me. But, it’s sloppy. Just a couple of samples from the more well-known pieces.

        Flight to Neverland:
        – :09 french horn entrance late.
        – :40 trumpets and horns totally not together
        – 2:03 glockenspiel and horns completely not together

        Star Wars Main Titles:
        – :20 seconds, near train wreck as the snare drum rushes ahead of the orchestra, the low brass don’t quite know what the do, trumpets sail ahead, and the orchestra nearly comes apart.
        – :55 snare is again in his own world

        Imperial March:
        – snare drummer gets lost. missed entrance at 1:30. then snare doesn’t come in at 1:42 when it’s supposed to.
        – 2:20 piccolo player enters an 8th note early

        So what if I’m being picky? I see a DG release of John Williams conducting Vienna and I expect BOTH precision and beauty. Sue me.

        • It all smacks of lack of rehearsal if what you say is true. I watched part of the concert (presumably the one recorded for this DG release?) and I had no sense of any of that.

          The audience loved it, the fans will love it. What I take issue with is the contemptuous tone adopted for film music in Lebrecht’s review. He must go the whole way and criticize Prokofiev et al for contributions to this genre.

        • That’s really far fetched. I checked the places you mention. Really? That bothers you?
          The Horn entrance is absolutely fine in ensemble. They swell on that tone, sing it, not like synthesizer…
          Only someone not too familiar with cantabile playing can hear it as late.
          So are the other spots you mention. Yeah, the percussion is a bit sloppy in a few spots, but nothing that distracts me from the wonderful inspired music making Vienna does in a live concert here.
          It sounds like you have an ear trained to midi metronome synthesizer precision. That’s boring and dead to my ears.
          Also worth considering: when John Williams records film music in the studio, he spends at least one week per one hour music in the studio. This concert is about two hours of music. Two weeks in the studio then, instead of a couple of rehearsals and two concerts! Easy to achieve metronomic precision in the studio. But very hard to make lively agitating music in the studio, playing the same thing 20 times in a row… and many original scores sound like it… Live concerts are a very different beast! How wonderful we have this document, how these scores can sound live!

    • Ah, this is obviously some strange use of the term bad ensemble playing that I wasn’t previously aware of.

      (With apologies to Douglas Adams.)

      There may be arguments to be made against this recording. I do not believe that this is one of them.

      • “Bad ensemble playing” means not playing together. It’s not a descriptor of an ensemble that is bad, but rather when an ensemble (be it good or bad) is doing a bad job of playing together.

        • Ahem. I am a professional musician. I am aware of what the term “bad ensemble playing” means.

          In the youtube videos to which I listened, I did not hear any playing that would warrant labeling it “bad ensemble playing.”

          Any live performance can have the occasional hiccup. If we cared that much about this fact, we would listen instead exclusively to programmed synthesizer music. We would never listen to recordings of the likes of Schnabel, Horowitz, or any other living musicians.

          Perhaps the CD uses different takes than the videos. If so, then I’ll have to wait until I listen to it before commenting further. I doubt that this is the case.

          • Fair enough. Your response to Couperin (shown farther down the list his moment-by-moment list of examples — maybe it was written earlier?) seemed to show differently.

            As I said, I haven’t listened to it and don’t plan to. I’m just kind of interested in what people are saying about it.

  • “Some day they’ll reissue the record as Lebrecht’s No-Star Wars.”

    Some day Lebrecht will be long forgotten, his Slipped Disc will have slipped into oblivion, and John Williams and his Star Wars will have taken their rightful place in the pantheon of popular classical music along with Holst and his Planets and Orff and his Carmina Burana.

  • I probably wouldn’t be a fan of this disc either. But don’t you think, Norman, you’re believing your own p.r. a bit too much with this beauty: “Some day they’ll reissue the record as Lebrecht’s No-Star Wars”.

  • Mr. Lebrecht: Although I strongly differ from you, I find your intellectual honesty commendable and fully understand the basis of your arguments. Just allow me to interpolate that the music of Richard Strauss was denounced on similar grounds a long time ago. History ruled in his favor: I offer as evidence, not Salome, or Elektra, or Der Rosenkavalier but the Duet Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon and Strings, those luminous Four Last Songs and the divinely inspired Oboe Concerto. It has been almost 50 years since Star Wars and I am absolutely confident that 50 years hence glasses will be raised in Maestro Williams’ memory in a goodly portion of the world’s orchestral milieu. And people will still come to listen to concerts of his music and be moved; lives will be changed, as they are now. Be assured it has nothing to do with the films, sir. I will stand witness to that, anytime, anywhere.

    Submitted in utmost respect:
    Ricky Irizarry
    A Professional Musician
    San Juan, Puerto Rico

    • Ah, you like late Strauss.

      I’m ecumenical; I like everything from the Serenade for thirteen winds, right through to the Four Last Songs.

      I was pleased that you mentioned the Duet Concertino, an underrated work. I hope to perform it some day. I have played (in the orchestra) the Oboe Concerto. I alway enjoy performing the Serenade and the Suite. I’ve never had the opportunity to play “From an Invalid’s Workshop” or “Happy Workshop”–have you?

  • You can disagree with the intent, but the players don’t hack their way thru it. No stars seems a bit malicious.
    But I get it: your blog, your opinion.

  • Only composers like Prokofiev and Vaughan Williams wrote film music worthy to be rearranged as orchestral pieces that could be performed in symphony concerts.

  • “No independent existence?” Well, it’s probably the most-played and best-loved music written for orchestra in the last half century – played every season by every major orchestra and invariably to full houses: so much so that Harry Potter is now a standard orchestral violin audition extract.

    It doesn’t need to justify itself at this point: it has as much “independent existence” as Beethoven’s music for Egmont, Mendelssohn’s score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream or (obviously) the film scores of Walton, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Copland, Weinberg or Britten. Music that was originally written to support drama has a long history of standing alone in the concert hall; Williams’s has repeatedly proved itself capable of doing so (I wonder how many of the premieres in a typical Proms season have even a fragment of the thematic invention and inspiration of, say, Star Wars, Empire of the Sun or Hook?).

    As a genre, film music is nearly a century old. Time to accept – and appreciate – it. Would anyone be as dismissive if the VPO had been playing extracts from Alexander Nevsky…or, for that matter, The Sea Hawk?

  • Well yes Norman, I take your point. But equally, wasn’t the VPO the house orchestra for the Strauss family (not Richard), who composed what in the day was the equivalent of movie music today?

    • I should have added that of course I treasure the music of the Strauss family and the VPO’s playing of it every New Year’s.

  • Oh Norman, how sad to so disparage a musical genre just because you don’t appreciate it, or perhaps even understand it. Wonderful music can be written not just for the concert hall; perhaps even for “moving pictures”.

  • With all respect to Mr. Lebrecht whom I greatly respect, but I beg to differ completely. I see no reason why a renowned orchestra shouldn’t play and record popular music and, yes, earn some money while doing it. Espacially in times like these. Orchestras are no high priests who are not supposed to engage in wordly pleasures.

    • I remember seeing at least 2 members of the orchestra beaming widely during the conductor’s addresses to the audience.

      Most of those films Williams composed the music for don’t appeal to me but I recognize musicianship when I hear it.

  • I find this recording to be absolutely fascinating precisely because it’s such an odd pairing of orchestral talent and repertoire. Besides, I’d rather hear the VPO play this than Gershwin, Bernstein or Stravinsky any day. Further, this orchestra has been squandering their talents on mediocre repertoire every New Year since….when?

    This recording is worth it for the horn solo opening Jurassic Park.

  • With all respect, might you be missing the point: Williams is the premier ambassador for the symphonic tradition. He has expanded the audience for classical music. The Vienna’s association with him likewise expands the audience, I will argue, for Vienna.

    In other words, is it so far-fetched to think that someone, encountering this album, will decide to explore Vienna’s recorded offerings a bit? Yes, Williams today, Mahler tomorrow?

    • I have a lot of respect for John Williams, but don’t understand how he expanded the audiences? Has his personal, well deserved, popularity transferred to a greater general popularity of classical music? I seriously doubt it.

      • But those people who actually sat in the Musikverein for this performance will surely go back there again for something else.

        • I seriously doubt that. Personal followings don’t create audiences. This has been demonstrated time and again, in concert and recordings- pace Three Tenors. Otherwise, the music of John Williams would have already attracted at least two generations of music lovers. Any evidence of that?

      • To rephrase your question a bit:

        Has the popularity of the music composed by John Williams transferred to a greater popularity of classical music, because of its iconic presence in and contributions to popular movies such as the Star Wars franchise and Harry Potter?

        I believe an argument can be made in favor of this.

        Think about the trend of movie scores going into the 70s, at least emanating from Hollywood: pop tunes (e.g. The Graduate), pop-influenced scores (e.g. Rocky), and such. Even movies that used classical music often used either prerecorded works (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange), or atonal scores (e.g. the Planet of the Apes movies).

        Then there was Star Wars, and the John Williams score.

        How often were classical concerts, pops or otherwise, previously organized around film scores by other composers?

        How popular are they today? Very.

        How many people who might turn out for, say, a Star Wars themed summer concert, may also turn out for classical concerts (pre-COVID-19), because of their exposure to the John Williams music experience? Quite a few. I see them and talk with them at concerts.

        Etc.

    • “He has expanded the audience for classical music.”

      Do you have any evidence for that, or has he just expanded the audience for John Williams?

      We hear these arguments a lot – “Katherine Jenkins/Andrea Bocelli intoduces people to opera”. I doubt it. I’ve met quite a few fans of these crossover singers and, in my experience, they just want more and more Katherine Jenkins/Andrea Bocelli.

      I think NL has a point, which is being ignored by people who are desperate not to appear conservative. Someone has commented “it has as much “independent existence” as Beethoven’s music for Egmont”. I suggest that most of the Star Wars fans like the music because they can easily associate it with the films, which are still popular and appear on TV on a regular basis. Not a lot of Goethe on TV, last time I checked.

      It’s well constructed film music, no doubt about that, but IMO that’s as far as it goes. Time will tell.

      • Lol, I’m a professional musician primarily *because* of John Williams’ music. It introduced me to the orchestra at a young age, and from there I got into plenty of other classical composers. I know multiple other people in the same boat as me, who credit hearing Williams’ soundtracks during their childhood with leading them into this field.

          • Funny you should mention that. “The Dune Sea at Tatooine,” from the the first Star Wars film, is probably the most obvious example of John Williams’s being influenced by late 19th/early 20th century classical music. Compare it to the beginning of the second part of “The Rite of Spring” and you might just forget which one is which!

        • Interesting.

          I always thought that someone of a younger generation than mine might have an advantage when it comes to Williams’ music: if you see “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” young enough, then you don’t know the march from Tchaikovsky’s 6th yet; then, when you do hear it, you can say “wow, this is just like ‘Raiders’!” …whereas some of us old folks heard a shameless ripoff the first time we saw the movie.

          Ditto for the march from The Love For Three Oranges vs. the Imperial March from Star Wars.

          And so on. I’d probably like his music better if I hadn’t known so much other music first.

          But whatever. John Williams is doing just fine without me.

  • Norman, I have great respect for your gifts. Your views match mine much of the time, despite our vastly different backgrounds and worldviews.

    Yet I must disagree with your review of the John Williams/Vienna Phil. album. I have heard several selections on YouTube, and I love them all. John Williams is a world treasure. His film scores are among the best of any era; Korngold and Rozsa may equal but not surpass him.

    As for only a “few exceptional tracks” with independent existence, several dozen selections beloved by millions of movie and music fans is quite enough for any composer! My favorite John Williams theme is the main title from “Jurassic Park,” performed stunningly by the Vienna band. There’s majestic dignity there to equal any of the “big tunes” from the most serious composers.

    To respond to the charge that most Williams’ music has “no independent existence,” I’m reminded of the endless, self-indulgent padding in some of Richard Strauss’s tone poems. (And I love Strauss dearly.) Who doesn’t patiently wade through the wearisome slog up the mountain to hear the sublime horn call in the Alpine Symphony? Same goes for the “big moments” in Ein Heldenleben, or Don Juan for that matter. And I won’t even start on Wagner (whom I love as well). We all can add numerous examples from these and other composers.

    Each musical genre and style serves a purpose. It’s a truism to declare there’s only good music and bad music. An overused phrase is no less true because it’s overused, however. I honor John Williams for his skills, for his long, impressive, and consistent career, and not least for the joy he’s given me for over forty years.

    I have a mental filing cabinet labeled “How To Do It,” where I file the best in every field I know something about. John Williams has a good-sized file. Beethoven’s late quartets and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion are at the front of the cabinet, among the largest and most prominent of all files. That John Williams is toward the back is not to dismiss him, but simply to place his achievements in their proper place. My cabinet has room for hundreds of music entries (composer and performance), from Mother Maybelle Carter to Philip Glass. Life is good. God has given us so much, and I want to experience all that I can. I’ll not so focus on the greatest pleasures as to risk missing the joys of the simpler pleasures.

    So, three cheers for this album. It’s a win-win for everyone: (Most) everyone will listen with joy; all involved make some money; and we have a marvelous record of an important musical artist near the end of his career.

    Oh, by the way, speaking of my “How To Do It” cabinet, I listened again today to Artie Shaw and Helen Forrest in “This Must Be Love” from 1939 (available on YouTube). Now, if that’s not 2 mins., 25 secs. of sheer perfection, I don’t know what is. It’s no mean feat for a Big Band singer to sell a song in 32 bars, constrained by unwavering tempo and with little chance to vary the phrasing. What a gift!

  • Ok, you know little about film music and John Williams. And have a vendetta with Vienna Phil.
    Why are you reviewing this album? What‘s next? Vegan activists reviewing Steak Houses?

  • Whike NL continues protecting “Rule Britannia” as a “unifying hymn, one that gives the nation confidence to face a bleak winter ahead”, he thrashes one of the most uplifting orchestral experiences of the recent past which we can now only dream of.

    • indeed. well said. how can one be so bitter and negative? why not stay away from the matter then? Is it that Vienna Phil has a smashing success with this, and he hates Vienna Phil to his guts, for reasons based on events over 75 years ago?

  • “…sheets of music that were written for the enhancement of moving pictures and has, with few exceptional tracks, no independent existence.”

    That, in a nutshell, is my complaint about movie music. As good as it can be, it’s limited to a specific film. The listener doesn’t get to imagine what the music is about. Even with hyper-descriptive pieces like “Don Juan,” you get to decide what the characters look like or the settings where scenes occur; even the famous “red-haired countess” can look like any redhead you can dream up. But in “Star Wars” (for example), the Imperial March is inextricably tied to that scene, in that movie, with precisely those actors, choreographed in precisely that way. Even the tempo has to be exactly like the original, or it doesn’t match the movie and is therefore wrong. And for the characters, we never have a chance to imagine what they look like: they look like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. Ditto for all the Indiana Jones or Harry Potter movies, and so on.

    I know it probably looks like I’m missing the point, asking movie music to be something other than what it is. I’m not, actually. I’m recognizing what movie music is; and the thing it is is the reason I don’t like it. It’s like not liking fish because it tastes like fish. I know lots of people love it, but I don’t. Oh well.

      • With an operatic overture — or an opera, for that matter — the music is not tied forever to a particular production of that opera, not even the one it was originally written for. (In Rossini’s case, it may not even be tied to a particular opera :-P) Not so with a movie score.

    • “Even the tempo has to be exactly like the original, or it doesn’t match the movie and is therefore wrong.”

      So are Williams’ performances of his own music with VPO “wrong,” because he does some different things with tempo in a concert setting? I mean, take for instance the massive rallentando at around 5:00 in Excerpts from “Close Encounters”; it’s *nowhere* near that big in the film version. So, is his interpretation on this album therefore “wrong”? Give me a break.

      • A purist might find it so; I don’t care what he does. (a) I haven’t listened to any of this — I’ve played more than enough of his music in my career* — and (b) I’m not familiar enough with the nuances of the original soundtrack to say if it matches what the movie did or not. He wrote it, so he can do what he wants. Another conductor, though, might be pilloried for taking liberties.

        It would be interesting to see how this music, or any movie music, comes across on its own, once the original movies have been forgotten. Will the Imperial March still sound sinister if nobody thinks of Darth Vader and the storm troopers when they hear it?

        *(I realize I am inviting punishment from the gods for that remark. If he writes anything else — or if any of his old music becomes affordable for my orchestra’s budget — we will play it, and we will keep playing it, until I die; and it’s looking like I will never play Das Lied. Those of you who find me annoying can take comfort in those two thoughts.)

  • I think that disrespect towards film music should not be part of review.
    Somehow forgot Mr. Lebrecht compositional output and his music performance credits.

  • Way to go Norman! Trying to drum-up more readership for your blog and generating image awareness by saying outrageous things about an iconic film composer. Give me a break…

  • Like Mr. Williams’ music or not, I would wager that the opening two notes of his theme from Jaws is the most well known bit of orchestral opening notes since Beethoven’s 5th or Also Sprach Zarathustra (probably because of its use in a movie). His music will endure.

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