News Column

Utah Symphony to perform compositions of John Williams

April 29, 2013


April 29--Go ahead -- just ask the Utah Symphony's principal pops conductor Jerry Steichen how much fun it is to present the music of pianist/composer John Williams.

"Do you know he has written over 100 different movie scores, starting with 'The Creature From the Black Lagoon?' " Steichen asked, calling from New York City. "It is a stunning list of films. So the problem becomes narrowing down to which pieces we are going to do, because you can't play all 100."

Steichen took to logic to choose selections for the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association's performance on Thursday, May 2, as well as the same program, played in Salt Lake City, on May 3 and 4.

He picked his personal favorites.

Steichen laughed at the confession. "And I am not too worried about my personal taste, because there is not a loser in the bunch."

With Williams, he says, there are some pieces you have to perform to keep an audience happy.

"Like 'Star Wars' -- that is part of the American experience. Everyone should hear a symphony play that at least once. And the Harry Potter movies are such a part of our culture now, that you have to do it.

"Then I also tried to throw in things -- famous things -- that people may not know he even wrote. I don't want to give away too much, because there are surprises. These scores you will know, but probably don't realize he did (them)."

What Steichen most enjoys about Williams' work is that he is so wide-ranging. You can tell Williams tries to suit the score to the mood of the movie -- not the other way around.

"What I love is how he writes using so many styles," Steichen said. " 'Memoirs of a Geisha' sounds nothing like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' which sounds nothing like 'Catch Me If You Can.' "

One of the pieces in performance is drawn from the movie "JFK." Don't worry if you can't remember the details of that score. The music is doing its job if you do not. It is there to build emotion, to, in a very real way, help the audience know what to feel.

"The nobility of 'JFK' is what you remember, but Williams' actual job is underscoring the drama. ... We play the chunk of music that is playing during the motorcade, during the shooting. Of course, no one remembers that music from the movie, but it is just breathtaking.

"He has a very tricky job of making that historic scene work dramatically without you being aware of it. Of course, he's had the joy of getting to write the big, iconic scores, too, like 'Star Wars' and 'E.T.' "

Lot of brass

Steichen admires Williams' work for a number of reasons. First, he has made a living playing jazz piano as well as classical.

"There is no fine line between classical and popular with him. He orchestrates like Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, like Tchaikovsky. The gestures and the figures in all of the different instruments -- the writing is exquisite. You can certainly hear Stravinsky and Prokofiev when you hear Williams."

Steichen said that Williams has a long and warm relationship with the Utah Symphony. He captured his "Star Wars" trilogy on album using the orchestra.

One thing is certain -- Williams, especially his big and bold scores, can take a lot out of musicians.

"The French horns just never stop," said Steichen. "The trumpets are at the top of their range. The strings are in constant motion. This isn't like the session players who record for the movie in L.A. and play it maybe once."

The challenges are such that Steichen talked management into changing the rehearsal schedule for this show.

"We usually rehearse on performance day, but I went to management and told them, 'The brass cannot play a John Williams rehearsal and a performance. It is too much.' "

Steichen, who works in everything from classical to musical theater to cabaret, loves this music for the magic it brings to an entirely different art form.

"It's simple -- take the music away from a movie, and it's not a movie," said Steichen. "The music informs us of the emotional responses. That is no small task. What is that old saying? 'If you can't say it, sing it; if you can't sing it, play it and if you can't play it, dance it.' I completely agree with that. This music tells us who we are."


(c)2013 the Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah)

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