Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Guided Tour to the Works of John Williams (Part 5: 2006-2015)

A quick note you will all appreciate: earlier tonight, I listened to a podcast featuring an appearance Williams made on Classical FM in August of 2012.  He discusses his father for a bit, including mentioning Williams Sr. having been a prominent musician in his own right, having drummed in (among other outfits) the Raymond Scott Quintette, and played on film scores, radio broadcasts, albums, etc.

What interests us is this (and I now quote Williams from the Classical FM interview):

He was a drummer, and he was something of a character, I guess you could say.  He comes from Bangor, Maine, and he came down from Maine in the middle 1920s to study music at the New England Conservatory with George Lawrence Stone, who your elder generation of percussionists will remember.

Huh.  Bangor, Maine . . . seems like I've I've heard of that town somewhere.

I'd listened to that interview before, around the time it happened; so I guess in the technical sense, I knew about this mild King/Williams connection, but I'd utterly forgotten it by the time I listened again.  I had myself a good chuckle when I heard Williams say "Bangor," and knew I had my entry point for the final post in this series.


As we discussed last time, 2005 marked the end of an era.  It wasn't evident for years afterward; it has only been in retrospect that we know of the era's passing.  And, to be fair, things could still change.  For now, though, it appears that the quadruple-play of 2005 (Revenge of the Sith followed by War of the Worlds that summer, then a holiday season consisting of Memoirs of a Geisha followed by Munich) marked the end of Williams' career as a full-time film composer.

Since then, he has returned to the scoring stage for a mere half-dozen movies, most of which have been comparatively low-key affairs.  Instead, he has focused most of his efforts on producing new concert-hall works.

So if you're a Williams fan, should that depress you?  Have we been deprived of something?

Read on and let's find out.  (And, in case you missed them, here are links to the first four parts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)

2006 -- NBC Sunday Night Football

The first new Williams composition of the "semi-retirement years" (as I'm calling them) was a 45-second theme he wrote for NBC's Sunday-night NFL broadcast.  The theme has never been released commercially, but an MP3 was downloadable around the time of the premiere.

The original version can be found here, and here is a reorchestrated and expanded version that will give you an idea of what it's like.  If the Internet has not lied to me, this arrangement/expansion was done in 2009 by Joel Beckerman of Man Made Music.  If the Internet has lied to me, I think that's a real shame.  I thought we could trust each other!

The original is fun, full of the sort of exaggerated and silly drama that sports-telecast music is known for.  It's a minor Williams work at best, but I figured it was worth mentioning.
2007 -- Duo Concertante for Violin and Viola

The 2008 album pictured above had its genesis in the 2007 Williams composition for duo we are about to discuss.  The liner notes discuss a bit about the history of the duo between violin and viola: it seems "to carry less historical weight than many of its chamber-music counterparts," says the writer of those notes, Robert Kirzinger.  However, due to "its limitations, the combination of violin and viola is a greater challenge for composers" than other chamber-music combinations, "and its repertoires has never quite achieved the popularity or status" of those combinations.

Kirzinger continues:

     The origins of this project are somewhat circuitous.  While the impetus for this recording was John Williams's Duo Concertante, completed nd premiered in 2007, that piece was itself partly triggered by the composer's attendance at a chamber concert of Boston Symphony Orchestra players in Tanglewood's Seiji Ozawa Hall in 1997, during which Romanul and Zaertsky performed Martinů's Three Madrigals.  Talking with Williams afterward, Zaretsky casually suggested that the composer write his own duo for the two players.  Williams's schedule being what it is, he didn't immediately act on the suggestion -- spending his time writing instead a dozen or so film scores including the Academy Award-winning Memoirs of a Geisha, three Harry Potter, and two Star Wars movies.  The idea never left Williams, though, and finally came to fruition in 2006 as the present Duo Concertante, one of the composer's very few chamber-music scores and his only work for this combination.  The piece was ultimately dedicated to Michael Zaretsky, since it was the violinist's suggestion that planted the seed.  Romanul and Zaretsky gave the official premiere of the Duo concertante on August 17, 2007, in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, although they had given a reading of the piece for the composer and officials of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Symphony Hall, Boston, the previous April.
     Williams deliberately decided to write the duo in a late-Romantic idiom that wouldn't have been out of place alongside Martinů's music, although Williams's lush score has less of the neoclassical about it.  The piece is in three movements, totaling almost thirteen minutes.  In the first, which the composer describes as a balance between "competition and cooperation," Williams explores the capability of these two primarily melodic instruments to combine in big, dramatic chords of as many as eight pitches.  This opening passage can be considered the main motif of the movement, in opposition to the rapid scales played by both instruments.  The second movement features "mini-soliloquies" for the two players, introduced by one and imitated by the other, increasing in intensity and having the character of improvisation.  This leads to a more relaxed, beautifully lyrical passage for the two instruments in conversation, an episode that builds and leads, after a series of trills, directly into the active finale.  The finale Williams describes as emphasizing the two instruments' "theatrical and athletic roles."  A passage before the final coda refers briefly but unmistakably back to the first movement, and the final cadence also features the two instruments in big, full chords.
I'm glad liner notes are here to tell me these things.  However, since these particular liner notes mistakenly award Memoirs of a Geisha an Oscar (if only!) and also have downgraded the Star Wars prequels from a trilogy to a double-feature, I'm not sure how much stock I should put in them.
If I read the liner notes while I'm listening to the duo, I find myself appreciating it quite a bit.  It doesn't come to me naturally, though.  In writing these brief thoughts, I listened to the whole work through three times in succession, and while my appreciation increased from each time to the next, I still found myself with anything interesting to say about it.  It skims off the top of my mind like a rock dashing across a pond's surface.
The fault almost certainly lies with the listener and not the composer, but that doesn't change the fact that I seem not to be able to appreciate this work to the degree it may deserve.  With that in mind, if we assume that a decent amount of both 2006 and 2007 found Williams working on this concertante instead of on film scores, the Williams fan in me cannot help but feel but that the time was squandered.  I wouldn't dream of going back in time and depriving Williams of the opportunity to do something that was obviously important to him; after all that monumentally great music, he had long since earned the right in my estimation to do literally whatever he wished to do with his time.
But do I personally wish retroactively for something else to have been done with those two years?  I'd be a liar if I said I didn't.
Stephen King connection: none whatsoever, apart from the vague desire to somehow equate this concertante to Lisey's Story as an example of something meaningful to the artist that had little positive impact on me personally.  But even this doesn't work; I love parts of Lisey's Story and the Duo Concertante alike, but I hate none of the latter, whereas I definitely do in the case of the former.
2008 -- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Nearly twenty years after the third and presumably final film in the Indiana Jones series, the essential players dusted off the fedora and the bullwhip and brought the good Dr. out of retirement.  The Internet hated it so much that you'd think they'd been anally assaulted with said bullwhip.

I liked the movie then, and I like it now.  I go back and forth on whether it's better than Last Crusade, in fact.  (Raiders and Temple of Doom are handily superior to both.)  It's not a perfect film, nor is it a great one, but it's a good one.  I like a lot of the things most people seem to hate about it: the aliens are fine by me (and if anything, I wish they'd beefed up the sci-fi elements and made the film more of a '50s-matinee flick); the "nuke the refrigerator" scene is fine by me (if you don't get a chuckle out of that whole thing, we're on different wavelengths); the gophers make me laugh; Shia LaBeouf is just fine; Karen Allen is just fine; Cate Blanchett is just fine.

It's just fine!

This movie's score was perhaps the first time that I found myself wondering if John Williams was losing his edge.  This is not to say that it's a bad score; it just isn't representative of Williams at his best, and after a three-year absence I was secretly hoping for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to be a home run.  It ended up being merely a double.  A double is a fine result, but if you've bought a ticket to see Babe Ruth play, you want a home run, and are going to be at least a little disappointed if you don't get one.  This is what happens when you have unreasonable expectations.

Williams wrote three major new pieces for the film: "Call of the Crystal," an ominously supernatural theme that represents the menace of the film's macguffin; "Irina's Theme," a slinky but dangerous bit of music for the primary antagonist, Russian villain Irina Spalko; and "The Adventures of Mutt," a rollicking theme for Indiana Jones's son.

The first of those is very good; the second is fairly good; and the third is fun but somewhat tiresome.  I'm not a fan of the chucklingly frantic strings in Mutt's theme; I often enjoy Williams in comedic mode, but not always, and this is one of the not-so-much occasions.

All in all?  Good music, but by far the weakest of the Indiana Jones scores, in my opinion.

2008 -- A Timeless Call

A Timeless Call was a short documentary -- some might call it propaganda (and please note that I do not intend that to be derogatory; not all propaganda is deceitful or bad, and I'm not implying that this is) -- directed by Steven Spielberg for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.  Its subject was the struggles faced by military veterans, and it interviewed several servicemen/women during its seven minutes.  Tom Hanks narrates it, and John Williams provides a score.

If you want to see it, it can be found here.  It's a moving little piece, and the Williams music is a big part of that.  It is, again, not a home run; but it gets the job done with heart and soul.  The music is not available commercially in any fashion, and I've never been able to find a bootleg.  I settled for ripping the audio from the video, which is as bootleg as bootleg gets.  And it's not particularly satisfactory, either.  You'd like to think that one of these days, a compilation of the various minor pieces like this one will be issued by somebody; my guess is that it would make for a very fine compilation.
2009 -- "Air and Simple Gifts"

Williams was asked to compose a piece that could be performed at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama into the Presidency, which is really quite an honor.  What Williams came up with was "Air and Simple Gifts," and I shall now quote its Wikipedia page:

Air and Simple Gifts is a quartet composed and arranged by American composer John Williams for the January 20, 2009, inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States.  The first public performance of the piece was in Washington, D.C., immediately prior to Obama taking the oath of office, when musicians Anthony McGill (clarinet), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Gabriela Montero (piano) synced their performance to a tape they had recorded two days earlier.  It was the first classical quartet to be performed at a presidential inauguration.  Obama officially became the President while the piece was being performed, at noon, as the United States Constitution stipulates.
Although it appeared that the piece was being performed live, it was in fact mimed while a recording made two days previously was fed to the television pool and speakers.  Yo-Yo Ma told NPR's All Things Considered that the piano keys had been decoupled from the hammers, and the bows of the stringed instruments had been soaped to silence them.  The performers stated that the cold weather could have affected the tuning and durability of the instruments, making a live performance too risky.
Williams based the piece on the familiar 19th century Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" by Joseph Brackett.  The source piece is famous for its appearance in Aaron Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring.  Williams chose the selection from Copland, one of Obama's favorite classical composers.
The piece is slightly under 4.5 minutes.  It is structured in roughly three parts.  The first section presents the "Air" material, consisting of a spare, descending modal melody introduced by violin, pensively explored in duet with cello and piano accompaniment.  The entrance of the clarinet, playing the "Simple Gifts" theme, signals the beginning of a small set of variations on that melody.  The "Air" melody at first intermingles with the "Gifts" theme, though it is supplanted by increasingly energetic variations.  Midway through, the key shifts from A major to D major, in which the piece concludes.  A short coda reprising the "Air" material follows the most vigorous of the "Gifts" variations.  The piece concludes with an unusual series of cadences, ending with chord progression D-major followed by B-major, G-minor and finally D-major.

It's a lovely piece, which you can hear here.  Here is an additional link to the inaugural performance.  I was cognizant of the piece's existence at the time, but remember being disappointed by the seeming fact that it was nothing more than a sort of an Aaron Copland remix.  Listening to it again for this project, I'm not sure why I would ever have thought that; at least the first third or so is clearly a brand-new Williams composition, which then entwines with the Brackett/Copland.  This is why you should listen to things more than once!

In any case, the sheer historical significance of the piece makes it one of Williams' most notable pieces.  It ain't every film composer who also wrote the score for a Presidential inauguration.
2009 -- Great Performances

PBS commissioned Williams to provide a new theme for its Great Performances series in 2009.  If you want to watch a video about the making of this theme, here it is.

I like this theme a lot, and it's another bit of evidence proving -- if only to me -- that there is a need for a compilation of these brief pieces.  We Williams fans need it to happen, so make it happen, somebody!
2009 -- Concerto for Viola and Orchestra

Williams with violist Kathy Basrak and the Boston Pops Orchestra

Williams wrote a Concerto for Viola and Orchestra for the Boston Pops and its violist, Kathy Basrak.  The Pops, with Basrak (and with Williams in his role as Laureate Conductor), premiered the concerto on May 26, 2007.

It's never been recorded for commercial release, which is a shame, as I'd love to hear a good version of it.  A bootleg recording can be found, but the audio quality is quite poor (unless you're a fan of hearing coughs every time the music gets silent), so I'm not going to bother linking to the YouTube videos.

From what I can tell, it's a good concerto.  Here's hoping we'll get a recording of it someday.
2009 -- "On Willows and Birches" (Concerto for Harp and Orchestra)

This concerto was written for Ann Hobson Pilot, who was retiring from the Boston Symphony after four decades worth of service there.

It's never been put out on disc, but was at one point available to purchase as an MP3.  That seems to no longer be the case, which is a bit of a shame.  I got it at the time, though, luckily.  When it comes to my primary obsessions (King, Williams, 007, etc.), I tend not to sit on these things, lest somebody stop selling them one day.  For that very reason, I will never, ever, EVER fully trust streaming sites.  Some people feel that paying Netflix a fee every month means that they essentially own everything on Netflix; this is not the case.

This is also not our current subject.  Moving on!

This particular concerto is about fifteen minutes in length, and consists of two movements: "On Willows," a moody piece, and "On Birches," a much more effervescent one.  I like both, but I love the second.  Some of this is probably due to the fact that I haven't heard that many pieces in which the harp takes the lead for an extended period of time; that helps this piece feel unique to me.
2011 -- Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra

Never heard it!  This one also had a digital release of some sort that seems to have both passed by attention AND expired since.

Woe is me!

BUT WAIT...!  YouTube has come to my rescue!

With these obscure and unreleased Williams pieces, I am in the habit of checking YouTube for them every once in a while, seeing if anything has popped up.  When last I checked for the oboe concerto, only one movement of it was to be found, and I decided I'd rather wait until I could find the entire thing.  Well, that day has finally come.

So what's the verdict?  I like it.  The third movement -- the liveliest -- is probably my favorite, but that may only be because I am a rube who knows little about music of this sort.
2011 -- "Quartet La Jolla"

This piece of chamber music (for violin, cello, clarinet, and harp, if the above photo is to be believed [which it is]) was written by Williams for the 25th anniversary of SummerFest, a chamber-music festival held in La Jolla annually.  Now, if you are a rube from Tuscaloosa like I am, you (A) don't know where La Jolla is and (B) think that it is pronounced with a hard "j" sound.  My research on this piece has informed me that (A) it is a neighborhood in San Diego and (B) that it is pronounced "La Hoya," or a less simpleton-esque version of same.

Would you like to read what Williams has to say about the piece?


The idea for the La Jolla Quartet resulted from a conversation that I had with Cho-Liang Lin at Tanglewood, after we had performed a Mozart concerto together. Cho-Liang, familiar to me for many years as a magnificent artist, delighted me when he told me of his music festival in beautiful La Jolla, California, and when he graciously asked if I would contribute a piece for his festival there. I was gratified and even flattered by his suggestion, and given the usual constraints of my work in film, I was especially grateful for the freedom that he offered in saying… “write for any combination of instruments you wish”… and so, I agreed to contribute what I could. The concept of a quartet comprised of violin, cello, clarinet and harp intrigued me, and so I set out to do a piece that would explore some of the interesting sonorities available in this seldom-heard instrumentation.

The work is in five movements, beginning with an Introduction, which presents declamatory gestures framing some of the contextual parameters of volume, texture and color that we’re about to hear. The second movement, Aubade, explores the harp’s very unique role as the spiritual center and life-enhancing force of the entire piece. The Scherzo is a brief and gossamer flight where the quartet defies gravity as it dips, dives and soars… hopefully without ever touching the ground! The fourth movement, Cantando, gives the clarinet the opportunity to reflect and ruminate to the accompaniment of a steady cello pizzicato, and leads the journey of exploration, finishing with a brief cadenza. And finally in the fifth movement, Finale, the entire group… con brio… collects and gathers its energy to produce a forceful and uplifting finale.

Without the constraints of any programmatic scheme, numerical formulations or procedures, writing this piece was a joy for me. I simply relished the pleasure of exploring the instrumental possibilities that would allow four magnificent artists to display their art.

I have dedicated the entire work to my friend Cho-Liang Lin. However… for the second movement, I wish to acknowledge my debt to harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, who was the inspiration for my Harp Concerto, and who was something of a spiritual guide as I worked on the Aubade movement, which reflects some of my research and preparatory work on the concerto.

Also I have to mention the great clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, whose work in the Chicago Symphony I’ve greatly admired. When John learned that I was writing this piece, he encouraged me to finish it, and when I was told that he was a frequent guest at SummerFest I decided to write the fourth movement, Cantando, expressly for him. Of course, my greatest thanks and deepest indebtedness go to Cho-Liang Lin for having conceived this project, which I hope in some small measure, might reward listeners and players alike.

The bad news is that there is no commercial recording of this piece.

The good news is that the program during which the piece was premiered is available in its entirety on YouTube.  "Quartet La Jolla" begins a bit after the 22-minute mark.  It's very nearly half an hour in length, which makes this one of Williams' most substantial concert works.

Is it one of his best?  I'm probably not a good enough judge to say for sure, but I like it a lot.  Not as much as "Soundings" or "Heartwood" or the Tuba Concerto, but it's very good.
2011 -- The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Williams was pulled out of his semi-retirement from film scoring by Steven Spielberg, whose own three-year vacation ended with the 2011 releases of The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.

I don't have much to say about Tintin.  I watched it when it came out, enjoyed it reasonably well, and have felt virtually no desire to return to it since.  I was sort of excited by the notion of Spielberg directing an animated movie (and Williams scoring one), although there is some debate on whether or not this even qualifies as animation.  As far as I'm concerned, it's advanced rotoscoping, and that counts.

Problem is, I don't find it that enjoyable to look at.  It's a step up from what Robert Zemeckis was doing on things like The Polar Express, but not to a meaningful degree.  I think audiences mostly sided with me; the movie was not a hit in America, and it was only a mild hit internationally (where the popularity of the Tintin character really ought to have made for a slam-dunk box-office smash).

The Williams music is solid.  The zany main titles music arguably works better within the film than outside of it, but hey, that's the intent of film music, right?  Right.  It's not a personal favorite in my Williams collection, but I know some Williams fans adore it, and I don't begrudge them that ardor.

2011 -- "A Young Person's Guide to the Cello"

This "comical" piece for the cello was apparently a sort of gift from Williams to cellist Lynn Harrell, who performed it at a recital.  (I say "comical" because that's how I've seen it described.  Spoiler alert: it's not very funny.)

A video of the performance can be found on YouTube, so give it a look if you've a mind to.  I wouldn't call the piece major Williams, but it's weightier than you might expect from the title.

2011 -- AFI's Master Class: The Art of Collaboration

Williams and Steven Spielberg appeared together on an episode of this TNT series.  They spent fifty minutes talking about music in movies (including Vertigo, Spartacus, and others) and about their collaboration.

Who wouldn't want to watch that?  Even Communists probably want to watch that.
2011 -- War Horse

War Horse is a film directed by Steven Spielberg that was based on a Tony-winning play.  It opened at Christmas, and was only a mild success at the box office.  It got half a dozen Oscar nominations (including one for the John Williams score, which lost to The Artist but should have lost to Hugo), and lost all of them.  All things considered, it feels a mere five years later as if nobody even remembers the movie exists.

What went wrong?  It's a great movie; sappy, I guess, but the sentiment isn't unearned.  My only guess then and now is that you simply couldn't pay anyone under the age of 50 to go see it.  I think everyone else figured that this was a movie for their grandmothers.

I don't know.  These things happen from time to time in Hollywood.

The music by John Williams is fine; the main theme is lovely, and there are a number of subordinate pieces that work well.  Most of these are featured in the terrific end-credits suite.

On the whole, though, I'd only give this one a B or so.  Good stuff; not great, a bit on the uninvolving side at times.  But it supports the movie very capably, and I'd rank the movie as probably an A-, so that's not too shabby.
2012 -- "Fanfare for Fenway"

Williams, who is a Red Sox fan (like Stephen King!), wrote this three-minute piece to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the venerated stadium.

It's a good fanfare, but I'm not a fan of the performance itself at the world premiere.  I'd love to know what a full-orchestra version conducted by Williams would sound like.

There is no such thing for now, but a studio version performed by the U.S. Coast Guard Band can be heard on their 2014 album John Williams For Winds: Music for Cinema and Beyond, which as of this writing was still streaming for free on their website.

Here's an interview with Williams about the fanfare creation.
2012 -- "Rounds"

In 2012, Williams wrote a six-minute work for solo guitar called "Rounds."  It was premiered by Pablo Villegas at the Parkening International Guitar Competition, and was later recorded by Villegas for his 2015 album Americano.

I'm fairly certain this is the composer's only concert work for solo classical guitar.  There are a few pieces -- which may or may not be solo (my memory is nonspecific on this subject) -- for classical guitar in his film scores, but generally speaking, this is uncharted territory for Williams.  I wonder if that's on purpose so as to avoid fisticuffs with that other John Williams, the classical guitarist...

Probably not.

As for "Rounds," it's pretty, but my ears don't hear much John Williams in it.
2012 -- Lincoln


I wish I were a bigger fan of this movie.  Guys, you probably know by now that I hold Spielberg dear as my all-time favorite director.  So when you tell me he's making a movie about Abraham Lincoln starring the world's greatest film actor, that's a thing I'm going to be excited about.

So why wasn't I excited about it after I finished watching it?

It's a good movie.  Daniel Day-Lewis is phenomenal, and some of the supporting cast (Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, and Lee Pace especially) do their darnedest to catch him.  They don't get there; but they get close enough to wave at him, which means that they do very good work indeed.  The screenplay is full of great dialogue, and the topic itself is one which remains hugely resonant.

So why did I walk out utterly unmoved?

I'd need a second viewing to tell you for certain, because I feel like I owe the movie a second chance to win me over.  I can tell you my chief complaints at the time, however.  For one thing, I didn't think the movie was cinematic in any way.  Rarely, if ever, has there been a director who uses cinematic language as well as Spielberg does, and yet here, he -- this is how I remember it, at least -- does little more than point the camera at his actors.  As I remember it, it's so utterly uncinematic a movie that I feel as if Spielberg can only have been doing it that way on purpose; this means that perhaps I simply missed something, and that the lack of "cinema" is working for the movie in some way rather than against it.  I can hope, right?

I also remember feeling annoyed that Spielberg had felt the need to carry the movie up to the point of Lincoln's assassination.  There is a point near the end where Lincoln is talking to somebody as he walks down a hallway; if you ended the movie with this scene, I think it would have made the movie much stronger, because, after all, you know what happens next.  The movie has been about Lincoln's victory; ending it with Lincoln's final defeat seems tacky and out of place.  But then, I think that some people feel A.I. and/or Minority Report ought to have ended in certain spots before they actually did.  What if I'm as wrong about this as those people are about that?  I don't think I am, but I might be.

For this reason, a second viewing seems to be very much in order.

As for the score, it's very good provided you appreciate Williams in low-key mode.  If you like the Saving Private Ryan tracks that AREN'T "Hymn to the Fallen," you will love the Lincoln score.  It's mostly composed of very reverential Americana-type cues, and the standout is probably the eleven-minute climactic piece, "The Petersen House, and Finale," which seemingly covers most of the score's major material.

However, three other cues stand out to me: "Getting Out the Vote," which is folksy and fun and has a fiddle in it; "Appomattox, April 9, 1865," which has some lovely choir work in it; and "Freedom's Call," a six-minute piece that ties together the three major themes of the score.

The whole album is good, though, and it makes me think -- hope! -- that when I revisit the movie, it will click with me.  Also worth mentioning: I swear I hear occasional echoes of both "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" (from Amistad) and "Look Down Lord" (from Rosewood) sprinkled throughout the score; if so, they're not out of place.

Williams received his customary Oscar nomination, but lost to Mychael Danna's Life of Pi.  I never saw that, so I don't know whether to be upset or not in a rational manner, so I'll be reflexively upset simply because it's another instance of Williams getting the shaft.

Stephen King connections: David Strathairn (Dolores Claiborne) had a major role and Hal Holbrook (Creepshow) has a minor (though important) one.
2013 -- Fanfare "For the President's Own"

Williams composed a four-minute fanfare for the 215th anniversary of the United States Marine Band (nicknamed "The President's Own") in 2013.  It has yet to be released in any commercial capacity, but you can check it out on the band's YouTube channel (here's an interview plus the performance, and here's an extended version of the interview in that first video).

It's a very good piece.  Not an all-time classic like his Olympic fanfares, but pretty fine nonetheless.
2013 -- The Book Thief

By 2013, it was a semi-confirmed near-fact that Williams was retired from film scoring, with the exception of films directed by his old pal Steven Spielberg.  For that reason, it was quite a surprise when the maestro announced that he would be providing the music for The Book Thief, a film adaptation of the bestselling novel.

Williams ended up working on the film as a result of having been a fan of the book.  I have not read that novel, nor have I seen this movie.  I wanted to see it (yes, mostly because Williams had scored it), I just never got around to it.

The score is very good, although one should temper one's expectations to be more in the mold of  an Angela's Ashes or Stepmom sort of thing rather than a Memoirs of a Geisha or Catch Me If You Can sort of thing.  I'm not sure that comparison is going to make sense to anyone other than me, but I stand by it even if I can't quite explain it.

In case you were wondering, Williams did indeed receive an Oscar nomination for the score.  He lost to Steven Price's music for Gravity.  That is a great score, so I'll refrain from complaint.

The soundtrack's best piece is probably "The Book Thief," which I assume to be an end credits suite.

2012-2013 -- "Conversations"
This four-movement work for solo piano was premiered piecemeal across two different nights in 2012 and 2013, and would later be recorded by pianist Gloria Cheng for her album Montage: Great film composers and the piano, which came out in 2015.
And now, I give you the program notes on the piece by Williams:
I’ve always wanted to write something for Gloria Cheng.  I originally intended to write a series of “water pieces” for her, but I got distracted.

Instead, while at Tanglewood… and for no reason that I can explain… I began to think of what a conversation might be like between the great jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mumbett, a resident of western Massachusetts and a former slave who sued the state of Massachusetts in 1781 for her freedom… and she won!  Two strong personalities, one pianistic and the other most surely vocal and hymnal… meet for a chat.  I imagined them having their conversation near the Sedgwick Pie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Visit it, if you can.

Next came Claude and Monk.  Not the Claude you might think I mean, but Claude Thornhill… a seminal figure in jazz history, principally remembered for his mentoring of Gil Evans.  Thornhill, who loved Debussy, and who I knew during my childhood, understood the sea change in piano sonorities discovered by Debussy, and those equally radical ones invented by Thelonious Monk.  It’s delicious to imagine an exchange between these two giants.

Chet Baker and Miles Davis possessed markedly opposing personalities, however they did have much in common.  They both eschewed bravura and needless display, and always revealed their art with the barest minimum of fuss.  They could be brief and often quiet, but their message was invariably brought forth with great force and power.

Finally, “Strays” (Billy Strayhorn), Duke (that one, of course…) and Blind Tom, another former slave and somewhat forgotten 19th-Century figure in American pianistic history… here gather to unravel the secrets surrounding the birth of “stride.”

And dear listener/reader, if you’re still with us… don’t listen tooo intently to identify the voices named within.  Theirs will remain inimitable and incomparable.  However, that we might be permitted to overhear these luminaries chatting in some undiscovered time zone… unrestrained by such things as clefs and bar lines… is a notion that is indeed enticing, and I hope that these minor musings might, in some small way, be worthy of the memory of these notable antecedents of ours.


The four movements are as follows:
  • I. Phineas and Mumbett
  • II. Claude and Monk
  • III. Chet and Miles
  • IV. Strays, Duke … and Blind Tom
None of these appear to be on YouTube, alas, which means no links for you.  I would say you're not necessarily missing that much.  I like "Conversations," but it would not rank in the upper echelons of Williams concert pieces, in my opinion.

2014 -- "Music for Brass"

This piece runs a bit less than five minutes, and was written expressly for the National Brass Ensemble.  They premiered it in 2014, and the piece appears on their album Gabrieli, which came out in 2015.

I like "Music for Brass."  The absence of anything except brass instruments is mildly off-putting to me, but in the case of this composition, Williams has clearly written with that in mind.  The end result sounds fairly natural (which is not necessarily the case with an fully-orchestral composition transposed for all-brass performance).

This hasn't hit YouTube yet; sorry for the continued blueballs.
2014 -- Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra

The Shanghai-based festival Music In The Summer Air commissioned Williams to write a Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra.  It premiered in 2014, played by the China Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Lang Lang (beware of typos mislabeling her as Lana Lang -- I just did it twice in a row!).

This piece is fucking GREAT.  Lang is an utter badass, and he is backed up very expertly by the China Phil.

A bootleg video of the premiere is on YouTube (here), and it is well worth your time.  I don't know what the deal is with this piece exactly; maybe Williams was a fan of Lang's and knew he would be writing for him so he wrote him something especially good, or if he had had this sort of thing in him for a while and finally got it out, or what.

Whatever it was, I'm glad it happened.
2014 -- A John Williams Celebration

On September 30, 2014, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Gustav Dudamel put on an all-John-Williams concert.  In 2015, the show was issued on Blu-ray and DVD and also aired (in an altered format) on PBS stations.

I don't have a whole heck of a lot to say about this, except that if you are a John Williams fan, you must trust me and rest assured in the knowledge that you DO want to own this.  It is GREAT.

The setlist:

  • Olympic Fanfare and Theme
  • "Soundings"
  • "Remembrances" from Schindler's List
  • "Jewish Town: Krakow Ghetto, 1941" from Schindler's List
  • Theme from Schindler's List
  • Cadenza and Variations from Fiddler on the Roof
  • "Closing In" from Catch Me If You Can
  • "Reflections" from Catch Me If You Can
  • "Joy Ride" from Catch Me If You Can
  • "Throne Room and Finale" from Star Wars
  • "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" from Amistad
  • "The Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back
My only complaint is that this didn't also feature music from The Reivers, Jane Eyre, The Towering Inferno, Family Plot, The Fury, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dracula, 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire of the Sun, The Witches of Eastwick, Superman, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, Far and Away, The Phantom Menace, Hook, Born on the Fourth of July, Saving Private Ryan, Memoirs of a Geisha, Heidi, Lincoln, Minority Report, A.I., The Eiger Sanction, JFK, Nixon, The Accidental Tourist, and E.T., to name a few.  I kid you not, I could have watched this if it had been seventeen hours long.  And from the looks of it, Dudademl would have been perfectly happy to conduct it for that long.
Here's hoping more Blu-rays like this will be happening in the future.  Or in the past; if they happen in the past, I can still buy them, so either way is fine by me.

2015 -- The Force Awakens

My urge here is to write a 7000-word essay about the movie, which I loved.  I am going to resist that urge and say simply that the movie worked for me near-completely, and that your complaints about it are stupid, and YOU are probably stupid, you stupid idiot.  There, that's your 2016 Internet experience summed up, you racist/homophone/cisgender freak.  I can't even.

I did love the movie, though, and I do think the complaints about it are horsepoop.

In any case, let's not worry about that.  We're here to talk about John Williams, who came out of semi-retirement to provide the score.  You will by now have no trouble believing that the score was the element I was most hotly anticipating.

It wasn't always so.  When the new trilogy was announced, I sort of wanted somebody else to take over.  Not because I was especially keen for Michael Giacchino to take over (though I'd be down for that), but simply because I was a little worried that . . . uh, how to put this delicately? . . . that there might be a sudden need for somebody else to take over Episode VIII or Episode IX, and if so, the shift in musical voice might be a problem.

Eventually, I realized that this was stupid.  A fellow fan pointed out to me that if you have the opportunity for new John Williams music, YOU TAKE IT.  Damn right, friend!  I stood corrected then, and remain corrected today.

I was underwhelmed by the music the first time I saw the movie, alas.  It simply didn't make an impact on me.  That changed a bit the second time I watched the movie, and as I've listened to the score more and more since then, I've grown to love it.  I can't quite decide where I would rank it among the other films in the series.  It's not up to the level of the original trilogy, or The Phantom Menace; and "Across the Stars" probably puts Attack of the Clones ahead of it.  But I think I might prefer it to Revenge of the Sith.

The placement doesn't much matter, though.  This is great stuff, with several major new themes.  A friend asked me about the score after I saw the movie, and I said it was good, but it didn't have any good new themes.  I am a dolt sometimes, such as right then.  The best of the new themes is probably "Rey's Theme" but the "March of the Resistance" is awfully good, too, as is the Kylo Ren fanfare.  There's another theme that isn't developed as fully; I think it represents Finn, but whoever it represents, it's fun.

The best place to hear all of this is in the epic end-credits suite, which also includes a mysterious new -- ? -- theme for something that happens at the very end of the movie.  I suspect we haven't heard the last of it.

And I suspect we haven't heard the last of Williams, either.  This is good stuff, and the idea of him not returning to complete the trilogy of trilogies is unthinkable.  He'll be 87 when the ninth film comes out, and when it does he will be putting the capper on what will almost certainly stand as one of the two or three most significant achievements in the history of film music.  In recent interviews, he sounds totally revitalized by the experience; he sounds less like an 83-year-old man than like a 53-year-old man, and one of greatly-above-average intelligence.  I only wish he'd make a full-scale return to film music in the interim!  Although the idea of him staying retired except when Spielberg or Luke Skywalker come calling has an appeal of sorts.

Let's talk numbers for a minute.  As you may know, The Force Awakens utterly annihilated virtually all North American box-office numbers as soon as it opened.  In only a few weeks, it sailed right past Avatar to take the crown of #1 Box Office Champion.  This makes the fifth time a John Williams movie has earned that distinction: Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, and now The Force Awakens.  I don't believe any other composer -- and perhaps no other film artist of any kind -- gets anywhere close to that record.  Somebody correct me if I'm wrong; there might be a VFX artist who trumps even Williams in that regard, for all I know.

As if that wasn't impressive enough, here is a list of the movies Williams scored that were the top earners of their year:

  • Fiddler on the Roof, 1971
  • The Towering Inferno, 1974
  • Jaws, 1975
  • Star Wars, 1977
  • The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982
  • Return of the Jedi, 1983
  • Home Alone, 1990
  • Jurassic Park, 1993
  • Saving Private Ryan, 1998
  • The Phantom Menace, 1999
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 2001
  • Revenge of the Sith, 2005
  • The Force Awakens, 2015
Not all sites agree on some of these placements, but these seem to be more or less general-consensus winners for their respective years.  That's FIFTEEN times, y'all.
That's John Williams for you.
2016 -- The BFG

Coming this summer to a theatre near you: The BFG, a Steven Spielberg film based on the Roald Dahl novel.  The BFG was hands-down my favorite Roald Dahl book as a child, and Dahl was my favorite author.  I'd say Stephen King is my favorite author now by a massive margin, but I'd be a liar if I didn't confess that adult me loves King nowhere near as much as child me loved Dahl.  I wish.  Adult me doesn't love anything as much as child me did, though, so this is in no way a disparagement of Uncle Steve.

In any case, I'm stoked to see how this movie turns out.

Especially the Williams score.

Thanks for indulging me in this lengthy side-step out of one fandom into another one.  Your regularly-scheduled blog will resume tomorrow night, with a review of the 1971 King short story "I Am the Doorway."

See you then!


  1. Well now... I have seen zero of the things mentioned and discussed here, outside of the football themes and "Crystal Skull," so I'mma have to circle on back to this one.

    1. As your doctor, I have diagnosed you as having a severe deficiency of Vitamin JW. I prescribe one dose of "The Force Awakens," one dose of "Lincoln," and one dose of a concerto of your choice. Administer as you see fit, and inform me of the results.


    Hey Bryant, thanks so much for doing this. Reading about John Williams on a Stephen King blog is like heaven. As you say (albeit in a different context), "I can't even." The only thing that would make this better is if I liked baseball in any way, especially a certain Red team... I'll just leave a few thoughts here if you don't mind; it's quite a bundle.

    -The only piece you cover above that I have NOT heard is Duo Concertante; I have inspected the first page of the score (and played it on piano) but the piece in its entirety remains unheard by mine ears. I sometimes forget it exists, even. Some fan!

    -"A Timeless Call" is too sugary for my poor tastebuds. I like the 'main theme' but the music might contribute a little too much to the sentimental nature of the work.

    - I just didn't 'get' "Air and Simple Gifts" first time; I thought it was just confusing how the lines seemed to dart in and out of the texture and obscure that lovely Shaker melody. That Williams (whose music I was just getting into) had overcomplicated the thrust of the work. Of course, a second listen changed that perception. Copland and Williams can and do co-exist very peacefully, IMO.
    - The Great Performances Theme is quite something; those opening horns are what sell it to me, I think. I even composed something that started exactly like it (though in a different key; I'm not a complete hack!).

    - I want a commercial recording of the Viola Concerto. Don't we (three or four) all?

    - I didn't even know the Oboe Concerto had been uploaded to Youtube! Yay. For a few months I've been listening to the concerto by way of the recent interview Williams did with KUSC. They played the entire thing on that. The first movement is easily my favourite; I got the score (oboe and piano accompaniment) almost solely for that movement alone. The other two are fine of course, but... they aren't the ones I hum, and good music is obviously defined by how many people hum it!!!11!!...!!!1!!.....

    - Quartet La Jolla is so cool. I love it, particularly the faster movements, and then the slower ones as well, and everything in between.

    1. David, leave me all the thoughts you feel like leaving -- I am always up for a John Williams conversation.

      The first thing that strikes me here is that you seem to be very much a fan of JW's non-film work. That's a wonderful thing. As I hope I made evident in these posts, I like that side of his work, even though it sometimes slides off my brain. After finishing the posts, I have been working on creating a set of Williams-retrospective CDs for myself (I say "CDs," but I actually just mean CD-length MP3 collections), and one of my primary goals in doing is to get a good flow from one piece to the next. In so doing, I've been mixing the various concert pieces in under the belief that hearing them in this sort of context will help me be able to distinguish one from the other. Will it work? Beats me, but I think it might.

      The second thing that strikes me is that you are a composer yourself, and as such obviously more knowledgeable about music than I by a factor of . . . I dunno, what, a hundred? I deeply apologize for any and all manglings of musical vocabulary I committed during the writing of this series. I would occasionally find myself struggling to make one point or another that I bet you could have helped me with.

      Tell me more about this recent interview Williams did with KUSC. I feel like that is something I need to hear.

      "Air and Simple Gifts" grew on me greatly during the researching of this series of posts. I hadn't given it a fair shot at the time it came out.

    2. Hmmmm... sorry Bryant, I've tried to find that KUSC interview for a while now, but no luck. It's listed on JWFan's Press and Interviews section but the link takes you to the KUSC homepage, where it's proven difficult to get a hold of the audio link for the interview. Well, it was with host Jim Svedja, and took place at 8pm on February 7th 2013. The two men talk a little, introduce the Williams concerto Jim is going to play next (e.g. The Five Sacred Trees is preceded by a discussion about how Williams absolutely adores trees - a lot of it, the diehard JWFan would know already haha), and they do this for a couple of hours. They get through nearly every concerto, though not the Clarinet or Viola ones. It was my first introduction to Williams mildly cussing ("bloody", not used to mean "with much blood").

      And you did just fine explaining yourself as regards the concert music, by the way; no real "manglings of musical vocabulary" espied here! If someone threw around musical vocab as if they clearly had an amazing grasp on it - but they just don't - then I'd have an issue. That's not the case here, because if anything sounds minorly off then you seem to sense it, and make light of the fact that it's probably minorly off. That makes it all very easy to read.
      As for your taste, it's very like mine: Soundings and Heartwood are indeed fantastic pieces. It's not as if one needs to study music theory and general musicianship for three years to be able to assemble thoughts about them; I therefore enjoy reading your thoughts on these! And that could well work, mixing together movements of the concert works and works for film! I don;t know if it might be helpful, or I just feel like doing it, but here's a briefly-assembled list of concertos from most accessible (top) to least (bottom). (Take it with a pinch of salt, I definitely need to revisit most of these!)

      2002: Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (being a reworking of cues from "Catch..." it's almost certainly the most accessible)
      1985: Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra
      1993: Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra (Five Sacred Trees)
      1994: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
      2011: Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra (this one could easily go down this list for its relative lack of bombast and smaller forces)
      2009: On Willows and Birches, for Harp and Orchestra
      2009: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (from what I can tell)
      2003: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra
      1996: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra
      2000: TreeSong for Violin and Orchestra (sensuous, colourful; this is probably where Williams shows off his French influences most, without straying into jazzy textures as in Heartwood)
      2002: Heartwood: Lyric Sketches for Cello and Orchestra
      1976: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (i.e. the "Less-Williamsy" violin concerto - he hadn't quite developed a mature concert hall voice yet)
      1969: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra

    3. That seems pretty close to how I'd probably order my version of that list. Cool!

      Oh, man, that interview sounds incredible. Hold on, let me do some digging in some of the places I know to look...


      Hey, looky! I think I found it within this thread:

      So let's forget any of that badmouthing I did of JWFan in these posts. (Although I did say some of the members were very cool, and here's some proof!)

      By the way, I've just gotten home frmo watching "The Force Awakens" for a third time. I've enjoyed it more each time, and I thought it was on viewing #1. However, between #2 and #3, I've listened to the soundtrack quite a bit, and I was amazed this time at how good that score is. WAY better than I gave it credit for being after the first viewing.

      This seems to be a running theme with me (pardon the pun). But it's no surprise, at least to me. With music, my opinions often change radically the more familiar I become with new works from my favorite artists. Not always; but often. Something to do with expectation versus reality, I think.

      Thanks for bringing that interview to my attention. I'm stoked to hear it!

    4. No problem! The only barrier to real enjoyment might be the voice of the host - bit stuffy - but it's a keystone interview for me.

      I think many people share your impression of that score. At first it was all, "There just weren't any musical highlights! I expected a modern Asteroid Field for the ages darn it!" Our expectations can be so high - because Williams is awesome - that the reality of a score can very well seem an anticlimax, especially if it has subtleties only perceived on the second or third listen, as was the case with Force Awakens. I'm worried it'll happen to me with BFG - that it'll seem irredeemably underwhelming at first. First impressions count for a lot. Just got to think it won't be "the next ET/Hook"... it'll be its own thang. Also, consider the pun pardoned.


    - Rounds is a slight curiosity. I do hear John Williams in it, but it's not a favourite. Have probably listened to it twice?

    - "For The President's Own" is structured quite choppily for me, and that's unfortunately my impression even after a few listens. His writing for wind band, and their playing, is obviously awesome. ("Colonel, you have a hot band!" He's such a jazz-cat!)

    - I lied at the top of the post; I haven't actually heard "Conversations", unless one counts 30 seconds of the first movement as having 'heard it'...

    - The youtube video of "Music for Brass" seems to have been taken down now. Your claim that it hadn't been uploaded confused me for a second - I was like, "but I left a comment on it!" Let's hope it reappears. I did really like the piece. Very funky.

    - Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra is cool, spiky in a fun way, but I don't like Lang Lang's performance. The playing is meant to be 'bangy' (technical term) but he's TOO 'bangy' (there's that pesky musical terminology coming in again). His theatrics limit his technique, quite provably I think. He could have done the piece greater justice. But then again maybe I'm talking rubbish and a recording with better audio emerges and I fall in love with Lang Lang and the piece rockets to the top of my "All-Time Favourite Concert Works of John Williams" list. Then again, maybe not. (It would be a long list, that one; I should make it sometime. If I can rank Stephen King novels, I can rank Williams concert works.)

    - I'm looking forward to the BFG, but it will never, ever top The BFG (1989), dir. Brian Cosgrove. That's a childhood favourite, and you can't mess with childhood favourites.

    - Dammit, I STILL haven't seen Lincoln! I'll get round to it eventually... until then, I'll listen to Williams's own fleshed-out, orchestral arrangement of "Getting Out The Vote", which I much, much prefer to the stripped-down cue on the soundtrack. Starts at 5:20 here:

    That's all that then. The burning question is, how long did it take you to write everything??

    1. You know, one aspect of this post that had not occurred to me is the extreme likelihood that the many links will occasionally go inactive. I'll need to remind myself to check them all once or twice a year!

      Good lord...! I had no idea there was an animated version of "The BFG"! How am I just now finding out about this?

      Thanks for that link to the Lincoln suite. I've not heard that, but I will definitely be checking it out.

      I can see where you are coming from with the Lang Lang playing. That might be one of those instances -- and this is pure speculation on my part -- where my lack of knowledge about the technical aspects of music enhances my enjoyment of a piece. I think part of what I like about it is that is sounds a bit wild and dangerous, almost like Lang is a drunk waiter who is carrying a very large tray of food across a crowded room. Disaster seems to be at hand, and yet, somehow it all gets where it's going. From my tiny amount of research, though, he certainly does seem to be a divisive figure.

      As for your question: it took me a LONG time. I know I was working on it at least as far back as October of last year, but I think I may have begun while it was still summer. But I had a lot of fun writing it, and will almost certainly add to it from time to time.

  4. I'm going to see Williams and the Boston Pops tomorrow, so excited! It looks like he conducts the second half and will be focusing solely on Star Wars themes while Richard Kaufman will conduct the first half and among others will conduct Superman, Out of Africa, Hook and E.T. Any song in particular that is a gem that I should look forward to?

    1. Oh, man...! I would imagine they'll all be gems. Have fun!

  5. Just an update on the concert: He conducted a couple of his olympic pieces followed by all star wars music (absolutely no prequel music, which I found interesting and a bit sad) then he ended the evening with hedwig's theme. He mentioned that he had just watched the rough cut of episode 8 and only accepted the job because he couldn't imagine the thought of someone else getting to write any music for Rey whom he has fallen in love with. It was a fantastic show (of course).

    1. Sounds like it. Pretty cool that you were there when he confirmed that he'd be scoring Episode VIII.

  6. I came here tonight intending to update the thread via the comments with a brief review of an entirely different John Williams album, and discovered that I'd failed to ever do so for "The BFG." This is what the youngsters refer to as an "epic fail," and it must be remedied before I proceed. So here goes.

    THE BFG (2016):

    (1) "Overture" -- A minute and a half of gentle Williams magic.

    (2) "The Witching Hour" -- Some of this sounds almost as if Williams is cribbing from his own scores for the Harry Potter films. I swear there's a direct quotation early on in this track. But the vast majority of it plays like its own thing, and even if it does sound Pottery, it's almost like discovering a new Potter score from Williams. So, pretty cool.

    (3) "To Giant Country" -- Playful, sprightly stuff, but with dark undertones. Pretty great track.

    (4) "Dream Country" -- A ten-minute tour-de-force that summons memories of the more wistful Neverland material from "Hook." Not in terms of the actual notes; this is just seemingly coming from the same part of Williams emotionally.

    (5) "Sophie's Nightmare" -- I kind of suck at being a John Williams fan. I had a similar experience listening to this score as I had with "The Force Awakens" in that I watched the movie, took very little notice of the music, and then listened to the CD. After that, I proclaimed that the score was kind of boring and free of themes. Then I listened to it twice more and wondered if I'd literally forgotten how to listen to music that first listen-through. There are numerous themes in this score! All are good, and one of them can be found right here.

    (6) "Building Trust" -- Tender, lovely stuff. I wasn't super impressed by the movie itself, but I feel as if maybe I need to watch it a second time, armed with a love for the score. I wouldn't be surprised if that caused me to appreciate the movie more.

    (7) "Fleshlumpeater" -- The music for the film's primary villain is maybe the score's weak element. Not bad, but kind of a trifle.

    (8) "Dream Jars" -- Williams does a lot of strong writing for woodwinds in the score, and this cue is one of the most representative in that regard. The players show their virtuosity for a bit, and the cue transitions into a lovely piece led by the harp.

    (9) "Frolic" -- There's a doofy section involving giants playing violent games, and this music scores that. Not bad, but nothing I'm apt to savor.

    (10) "Blowing Dreams" -- Good statements of some of the themes, and more of the woodwinds action.

    1. (11) "Snorting and Sniffing" -- I don't have much to say about this one, but it's very good.

      (12) "Sophie's Future" -- The harp is back for this earnest, gentle statement of Sophie's theme.

      (13) "There Was a Boy" -- Probably the most melancholy cue on the album, which makes sense, given that it accompanies a scene that reveals a tragedy from the BFG's past.

      (14) "The Queen's Dream" -- An energetic version of some of the more actiony music.

      (15) "The Boy's Drawing" -- In lieu of saying anything about this cue, I'll mention Disney's poor marketing job on the movie. Fans of the book know that "BFG" stands for "Big Friendly Giant," but nobody else knows it, and in a rare case of marketing ineptitude, Disney failed to inform anyone what the title meant. Consequently, BFF (that's Big Fat Failure) at the box office.

      (16) "Meeting the Queen" -- The music turns Elgar-esque in a few places during this stretch of the film (he said, in what might be fairly called a bluff).

      (17) "Giants Netted" -- The bad-guy giants get captured, and the threat swept away along with them. Ah, if only real life could be resolved so neatly.

      (18) "Finale" -- The emotional resolution is a piano-led cue that is more bittersweet than you might expect. Good stuff.

      (19) "Sophie and the BFG" -- This 8:09 track serves as a suite of the movie's major material, and can stand quite proudly alongside much of Williams' work of the last twenty years or so.

      All in all, I think it's a B+ score, or maybe an A-; probably not an all-time Williams classic, but when you consider what it takes to join those ranks, you'd be a true churl for expecting that from JW every time at bat.

      It was a rare miss for the composer at the Academy Awards, failing to be nominated for an Oscar. Not being familiar with most of the works that WERE nominated, I'm not quite willing to say he was robbed. But do I assume it? Yeah, of course.

  7. Recently released: "John Williams & Steven Spielberg: The Ultimate Collection."

    Which, I can tell you definitively, is not that. Guys, can we ease back on using words like "ultimate"? Rarely do they fit. An "ultimate" collection of Williams music for Spielberg films would contain literally every note ever recorded for such a purpose. It would be several hundred discs long, and would cost $17,000, and I would be terminally furious because I would never be able to afford it.

    So no, this is not the "ultimate" collection.

    But it's not bad. It contains 1991's "The Spielberg/Williams Collaboration," 1995's "Williams On Williams," and a brand-new (and frustratingly not available in solo form) third disc, "The Spielberg Williams/Collaboration Part III." The idea, I guess, is that "Williams On Williams" is "Part II," which is fine, although the pedant in me is annoyed by that due to the fact that nowhere is it actually TITLED Part II. I can let that go, though.

    The set also includes a DVD that contains a terrific (if -- at 24 minutes -- frustratingly brief) documentary about the music on Part III and the sessions that produced them.

    The tracks are:

    1. (1) "The Adventures of Mutt": You might recall that I'm not a fan of this piece. This new recording doesn't change my mind about that, but it gets close. It might be the only track on the album that I'd argue is superior to the original version.

      (2) "Dry Your Tears, Afrika": A not-bad version of this gorgeous piece from "Amistad." I'll stick with the original, but this is fine.

      (3) "The BFG": A concert suite Williams has conducted several times, it's seemingly a slightly shorter version of the end credits track from the movie. It's good, but my ears hear no persuasive reason not to stick with the album version.

      (4) "With Malice Toward None": Never entirely warmed up to the "Lincoln" score, and even here, it proves to be a bit slippery for me. I keep trying to hug it, but it's slick, and escapes my grasp each time.

      (5) "The Duel": This piece from "Tintin" is fun, and seems downright effusive coming on the heels of the stately music from "Lincoln."

      (6) "A New Beginning": I adore thus cue from "Minority Report," but it's stronger within the context of the score, where it serves as something of a culmination. Here, it feels out of place following frantic music from "Tintin." It really ought to have followed "With Malice Toward None," and ought not to have been followed by...

      (7-9) "Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra": This three-movement concerto consists of three pieces from "Catch Me If You Can" (the main titles, "Reflections," and "Joy Ride"). There are some differences, so in a sense, this concerto is distinct. But on the whole, I'd rather just hear the cues from the soundtrack album; and the concerto is, I would argue, better represented on the Gustavo Dudamel Blu-ray. But that's nitpicking -- this is great music.

    2. (10) "Marion's Theme": If you are the kind of guy who constructs his own Williams compilations, (a) God help you, and (b) you probably already know that there was no version of "Marion's theme" (from "Raiders of the Lost Ark") that did not also contain the Raiders theme. Her theme did not exist as its own thing. Well, at some point, Williams apparently created a concert version that remedied that, and has now recorded it. Great! Future self-made compilation will benefit.

      (11) "Hymn to the Fallen": As far as I'm concerned, the OST version of this cue is perfect, so there was little to no chance of a new version improving upon it. And this doesn't, although I do like how different the choir sounds in a few places.

      (12) "Dartmoor, 1912": This gorgeous piece from "War Horse" remains gorgeous.

      (13) "Viktor's Tale": Great cue, but this performance underwhelms me.

      (14) "Prayer for Peace": Thing is, Williams didn't entirely compose this. And there continues to be no mention of the composers of the Israeli national anthem, which is ... odd. I'd have included "Avner's Theme" instead. But this is a strong performance, so who am I to complain?

      (15) "Immigration and Building": An odd inclusion, though it technically counts, since "The Unfinished Journey" was directed by Spielberg. Good music, but methinks this space could have been better utilized (more on which in a bit).

      (16) "With Malice Toward None" (alternate version): The previous version was for trumpet; this one is for cello. And it's good, but did this album really need two versions of the same theme from "Lincoln"? I say no.

      I say it needed music from the projects that are not represented on "The Ultimate Collection." What's that, you say? An "ultimate collection" is missing entire movies?

      Sure is. To be specific, it's missing "The Lost World," "A.I.," and "War of the Worlds," all of which are unforgivable omissions. But it's also missing "Amazing Stories" (the main title music plus the two excellent episodes Williams scored), as well as "A Timeless Call," a brief documentary piece Spielberg directed that featured original Williams music that is not available in any format.

      And if you wanted to stretch the concept a bit, you could argue for the inclusion of the Spielberg-produced / Williams-scored "Memoirs of a Geisha."

      I wouldn't go that far, but those other things I mentioned really ought to have been represented.

      In any case, this album ought to be judged for what's here rather than what isn't, and what's here ranges from very good to great. So it's well worth having.

      But it's not an "ultimate collection" by any definition I'd care to use.

  8. A new concert piece by Williams -- "Markings" -- was debuted this past Sunday (July 16) by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom Williams wrote the piece.

    It's currently on YouTube ( and is well worth a listen if you enjoy Williams in a dark, contemplative mood.