Grand Rapids Symphony Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt doesn’t mince words when he talks about film composer John Williams.
“He’s my hero,” Bernhard says with a smile.
Bernhardt comes by that belief honestly. During his 14-year tenor as conductor of the Boston Pops, Williams in 1992 hired Bernhardt to be a guest conductor of the most famous pops orchestra in the world.
Ever since, Bernhardt has continued to guest conduct the Boston Pops nearly every season for the past quarter century. Williams, of course, has continued to compose music for film.
Their collective efforts come together this week on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s stage.
Bernhardt will be back on the Grand Rapids Pops podium this week with Star Wars and More: The Music of John Williams with some of Williams’ best-known and most-loved music, plus a few surprises in for good measure.
The Fox Motors Pops series shows are at 8 p.m. May 11-12 and at 3 p.m. May 13 in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students. Call the Grand Rapids Symphony at (616) 454-9451 or go online to GRSymphony.org or GRPops.org
Two years ago, the Grand Rapids Symphony's first concert devoted to the movie music of John Williams sold out several performances, leading to the creation of an all-new show. With the film music of John Williams, there's plenty of material to choose from. Winner of five Academy Awards and 24 Grammy Awards, the Juilliard School-trained composer, conductor and pianist has composed film music for some of cinema’s all-time blockbuster franchises including the Indiana Jones series and the Harry Potter series as well as the Star Wars series.
Drawing inspiration from composers such as Wagner and Tchaikovsky, Williams’ capacity to write evocatively and create characters out of musical thin air seems to know no bounds.
“John Williams, I think, is the greatest American film composer we have and one of the greatest that’s ever lived,” said Steven Reineke, music director and conductor of the New York Pops.
In a small way, Williams has filmmaker Stephen Spielberg to thank. Before Williams sat down to compose the score for the original Star Wars film, Spielberg suggested Williams listen to English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, which the Grand Rapids Symphony performed in February in DeVos Hall.
The rest is musical and cinematic history.
“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. “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.”
In Williams’ first film to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score, a two-note theme announces the entrance of a menacing shark in the 1977 film Jaws. In his second film to win the Oscar for Best Original Score, a French horn solo, brief and longing, introduces the young Luke Skywalker, gazing out at a binary sunset on a desert planet in the 1977 film now known as Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope.
The Julliard School-trained composer’s score for Star Wars, with its sweeping sonic landscape, helped define the entire franchise, which now encompasses eight films plus a ninth now in pre-production.
The Grand Rapids Pops this weekend will perform highlights from all three of the Star Wars trilogies. Selections include “Princess Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars: A New Hope, “Battle of the Heroes” from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and “The Rebellion is Reborn” from The Last Jedi.
Continuing on the Star Wars theme, costumed characters from the Star Wars franchise will patrol the lobby of DeVos Hall, greeting guests and posing for pictures at each show. Characters from the Great Lakes Garrison of the 501st Legion, a worldwide Star Wars costuming organization, are expected to include Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, Rey, assorted Storm Troopers, and more.
Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt also will conduct the Grand Rapids Pops in music from films including Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Far and Away, Angela’s Ashes and more.
The Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Chorus, directed by Sean Ivory, will sing vocal music including “Double Trouble” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and “Exultate Justi” from Empire of the Sun.
The most recent Star Wars trilogy, which includes the 2015 film The Force Awakens followed two years later by The Last Jedi, will see its third and final installment premier in December 2019. Williams, now 86, says that the as-of-now untitled Star Wars IX, directed by J.J. Abrams, will be the composer’s last Star Wars film.
“We know J.J. Abrams is preparing one now for next year that I will hopefully do for him, and I look forward to it,” Williams said recently on the University of Southern California’s Classical music radio station, KUSC-FM. “It will round out a series of nine and be quite enough for me.”