Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's "Star Wars & More" is a roller coaster ride to Christmas town

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

John Williams has written so much film music, it’s easy to forget just how much he’s written.

Every “Star Wars” film, most of the “Harry Potter” movies, and the films starring Indiana Jones, just to name a few. Now add such films as “Schindler’s List” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” to the list.

Cue the iconic image of a young Macaulay Culkin, with his hands on the side of his face, looking surprised, in the film “Home Alone.”

That’s totally relevant here because John Williams wrote the score to that movie, and the Grand Rapids Pops played it on Friday night in DeVos Hall plus music from all of the above.

“Star Wars & More: The Music of John Williams,” the final concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2015-16 Fox Motors Pops series, opened Friday, selling out DeVos Performance Hall and filling the auditorium with kids of all ages plus Darth Vader and a contingent of well-dressed Imperial Storm Troopers, all enjoying incredible music played incredibly well.

An evening of music by the five-time Academy Award winner is a roller coaster ride. An evening of listening to the Grand Rapids Symphony play music by the 50-time Oscar nominee is a roller coaster ride to Christmas town. 

Grand Rapids Symphony’s irrepressible Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt was tour guide for the concert sponsored by Huntington National Bank that repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon with costumed “Star Wars” characters from the Great Lakes Garrison of the 501st Legion patrolling the corridors of DeVos Hall.

Movies transport their audiences to places real and imaginary, from just across the street to a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

The film is the people mover that takes you there. Music, however, is the gas that makes the engine go. 

The final installment of the Fox Motors Pops series was jam packed full of exciting moments of movie magic, even without the films themselves.

The show opened with polish and poise with the main theme from “Superman,” a score that still sounded shiny and new in the hands of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The orchestra still was going strong two hours later, playing the main theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as an encore.

Not surprisingly, the show just scratched the surface of John Williams’s repertoire, but it had one governing principle:

“It’s stuff I like,” Bernhardt told the audience, which undoubtedly felt the same.

Bernhardt, a longtime associate of Williams, hired by Williams himself as a guest conductor for the Boston Pops when Williams served as its music director, was a kid in a candy story for the show.

“Star Wars & More” had plenty of music from “Star Wars,” but the show wasn’t all cracking whips and crackling light sabers.

Guest violinist Benny Kim joined the orchestra for two dramatic segments, first for the main theme from “Schindler’s List,” for which Williams earned one of his Oscars for Best Film Score. And then for highlights from “Fiddler on the Roof,” which Williams didn’t compose, but for which he won his first Oscar for Best Adaptation of Music for Film.

The former originally featured violinist Itzhak Perlman, the latter had violinist Isaac Stern. Kim and his Stradivarius was a worthy stand-in for both, with a heartfelt reading of “Schindler’ List,” and a virtuosic performance of the florid violin solos from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Some 110 voices of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and Youth Chorus erupted dramatically to open “Duel of the Fates” from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.”

Joyful, Sub-Saharan vocals in “Dry Your Tears” from “Amistad” and the exotic colors of “Sayuri’s Theme” from “Memoirs of a Geisha,” featuring exquisite solos by principal flutist Christopher Kantner and English hornist Kathleen Gomez, were among the rich moments.

The show of movie highlights that are big, bigger and biggest was exhausting with little time to rest. It’s a lot of music, and a lot of it is harder than it looks. You simply have to admire the stamina of a heroic section of brass instruments.

Bernhardt, who was appointed principal pops conductor in January 2015, and the Grand Rapids Symphony are developing smooth and sturdy partnership between conductor and orchestra. It payed off with heartfelt music such as the “Hymn to the Fallen” from “Saving Private Ryan” or magical moments such as “Harry’s Wondrous World” from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

The showstopper was highlights from the latest “Star Wars” film, “The Force Awakens.” Grand Rapids Symphony is among the first to play the music. Friday’s audience was thrilled to hear the noble “Rey’s Theme” and stirring “March of the Resistance.”

Bernhardt tells a good story. One he delights in telling is when John Williams and Stephen Spielberg watched the rough cut of “Schindler’s List” to discuss music for the film.

At the end of the screening, there’s silence in the room. Finally, Williams turned to Spielberg and told the filmmaker he needed a better composer to do the film justice, according to Bernhardt.

“John, you’re right,” Spielberg replied. “But they’re all dead.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 09:00
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