John Williams is the most successful film composer in the history of cinema. The facts speak for themselves.
The composer for the Star Wars, Harry Potter and Indiana Jones franchises, as well as for films such as Jaws and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, likely has an entire trophy room for his awards, which include five Oscars and 17 Grammy Awards.
A total of 50 Academy Award nominations in all has helped make the composer that Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel dubbed “the Mozart of our day” the best-known, best-loved film composer of the past four decades.
The Grand Rapids Symphony closes its 2015-16 Fox Motors Pops Series with Star Wars & More: The Music of John Williams, with just a small sampling of the composer’s output.
But with music from the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest film in the Star Wars franchise, plus music from another dozen films, it’s going to be epic nonetheless.
“It’s going to be fun from start to finish, and you know the music is going to be brilliant,” said GRS Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt, who will lead three concerts, Friday through Sunday, May 6-8, in DeVos Performance Hall.
Highlights from films including Superman, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad are among the different films on the program along with “Sayuri’s Theme” from Memoirs of a Geisha and “Flight to Neverland” from Hook.
Guest violinist Benny Kim joins the Grand Rapids Pops as soloist in music including the main theme from Schindler’s List, one of the five films that earned Williams the Oscar for Best Original Film Score.
Williams was just 45 years old when he composed the music for the 1977 film Star Wars, for which he received his second Oscar Award. Nearly 40 years later at age 83, Williams was raring to go for the seventh installment, which debuted this past December.
“I didn’t have any reservations about it at all. I thought it would be great fun,” Williams told the Los Angeles Times in December.
By the composer’s own count, only 7 of the 102 minutes of music in The Force Awakens draw upon earlier themes. The rest of the score for the 2015 film is new material.
Grand Rapids Symphony will perform “Rey’s Theme,” a sweeping, Slavonic folk dance that’s related to Williams’ “Force Theme,” and will play the “March of the Resistance,” both from The Force Awakens.
The “Imperial March” from Star Wars and “Anakin’s Theme” from The Phantom Menace also are part of the program.
Across the entire canon of seven Star Wars films, Williams has composed some 15 hours of original music, a scale that would have boggled the mind of Richard Wagner, composer of four massive music dramas in the Ring of the Nibelung cycle.
“It would be like writing an opera, and then writing six more based on the same kind of material and the same story. Over the course of 40 years,” Williams told the Los Angeles Times in December.
Similar to Wagner, Williams’ music is grounded in Leitmotivs, or short musical themes that identify characters and objects, emotions and motivations, situations and locations. The Leitmotivs return again and again throughout each film’s score.
It’s one of the reasons John Williams became Steven Spielberg’s go-to composer, according to Conductor Steven Reineke of the New York Pops, which performed music from The Force Awakens in Carnegie Hall in April.
“John has a way to capture the visual element of the film, and the feelings, the emotions ... and transfer that into music,” Reineke told AM New York in April. “So when you take the music out of the film and play it on a concert stage with no visuals and just listen to it, it takes you right back to that film and what it’s about — you can picture it in your mind.”
Williams, music director of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993, personally arranged highlights from The Force Awakens, which was debuted in December by orchestras including the Los Angeles.
The Grand Rapids Symphony is among the first to play music in the concert hall from last year’s latest Star Wars installment.
Music from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,™ Williams’ third Oscar winner for Best Original Score, won’t be on this weekend’s program, but the Grand Rapids Pops next season will screen the full-length movie with live music.
The Grand Rapids Symphony also will be among the first orchestras in the world next season to screen the full-length film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone™ with live music.
Meanwhile, the Julliard School-trained composer already has been engaged to compose for the next Star Wars film, due to be released in 2017.
Bernhardt, a native of Rochester, New York, who joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in January 2015, has been a longtime guest conductor of the Boston Pops, hired by Williams himself.
“He’s my hero,” Bernhardt said.