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London has played a very important role in the career of John Williams – while he had already been composing for television and then film for a decade, it was while there for large parts of 1968 and later 1970, working on Goodbye Mr Chips and Fiddler on the Roof, that he immersed himself in the musical world and really blossomed into the glorious composer who developed in the 1970s.  Of course, later in that decade he began a famous association with the great London Symphony Orchestra, with whom he went on to make a number of seminal recordings.

Williams’s last recording with the LSO was in 2005 for the final Star Wars prequel – hopes were high at the time that a concert might coincide with his time in London but that didn’t materialise and as the years went by it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would ever return to European shores.  It was a great surprise therefore that early in 2018 it was announced that he would indeed be making a return to London – to the Royal Albert Hall to conduct his music with the LSO (and all 5,000 tickets had sold out within an hour of going on sale, an extraordinary feat for a film music concert).  He did arrive in London a few days ahead of the concert but, sadly, was taken ill and hospitalised – while people were of course extremely disappointed that he had to pull out of the event (none more so than the man himself, I’m sure) he was determined that the show should go on and his friend Dirk Brossé stepped in at the last minute to take on conducting duties.

I was so disappointed to miss out on what was surely to be my final opportunity to see Williams conducting in my home country, but the Royal Albert Hall and the London Symphony Orchestra did everything they could to make the evening a magical one in the great man’s absence – which they did, to their great credit, extremely well.  The show was broadcast live on national radio in the UK – and when the LSO’s chairman and principal flautist Gareth Davies announced before the show began that Williams was listening to the broadcast, the eruption of good-feeling which swept through the Hall must have warmed the legendary composer’s heart.  Davies read out a letter which Williams had penned, expressing his wish that everyone would enjoy “a truly joyous night of music” – and they most certainly did.

The orchestra’s leader Carmine Lauri strode into position swiftly followed by Brossé and the music began not with the scheduled suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind but instead with Williams’s most famous piece – indeed, film music’s most famous piece – the theme from Star Wars.  The flawless performance raised the roof – it was a brilliant idea to use it to kick off the concert, raise everyone’s spirit and allow them to so raucously express their love for Williams.  Close Encounters followed – the long suite beautifully condenses one of the composer’s finest scores down into concert form, from the portentous opening through the violent waves that lead to the glorious romantic section and finally of course that indelible five-note motif to close everything down.

The programme concentrated heavily on those iconic scores Williams wrote in that remarkable period in the second half of the 1970s and first half of the 1980s but next up came a trio of pieces from the enormous franchise he graced with iconic music in the 2000s – Harry Potter.  The first score’s famous “Hedwig’s Theme” (which I thought was taken a little slow) and the rousing “Harry’s Wondrous World” sandwiched the second film’s gorgeous “Fawkes the Phoenix”.  Understandably, the programme focused largely on the big hits (and with John Williams, there really is no shortage to choose from) – the one real “rarity” was the end title from Dracula (which only days earlier had had a long-awaited deluxe edition album announced, to great excitement).  The grand, gothic romantic piece was one that most people in the audience would never have heard live before – indeed, many would never have heard at all before – and was of course great.

The first half concluded with the glorious “Adventure on Earth” from ET – the abridged concert version (I was lucky enough to hear Williams conduct a real rarity when he did the full original version of the piece at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago and, while it is long, I do prefer it).  I did at this point think of the anecdotes that Williams would probably be reciting to introduce these pieces – this one, as all seasoned Williams-watchers know, typically gets the “Steven said he’d cut the film to the music” story (later, I’m sure we’d have heard “You need a better composer” / “But they’re all dead” before Schindler’s List).  Instead, violinist Maxine Kwok-Adams stood up to introduce the piece and had the audience in stitches at her recollection of her first time recording with Williams (on Attack of the Clones) when at first he was charmed by her story of deciding to take up music because of him – her father having endlessly played the Star Wars album when she was young – before “he probably started thinking about taking out a restraining order” as she presented him with an endless stream of Star Wars merchandise to sign.  ET brought the house down and got an extended standing ovation – discussion in the interval was centred around variations on “Wow!”

Brossé introduced the second half with a moving personal tribute to Williams – noting what a nice man he is and, echoing something I heard countless times through meeting many people during the day who know or have met the man himself – how very humble he is.  Musically, another masterpiece was ready – not just the best superhero theme anyone’s ever written, but the best by a margin so great it beggars belief – the theme from Superman.  The most recent film represented came next – Steven Spielberg’s The BFG may not have been a great financial success but Williams is clearly very fond of it (and his score) since he performs it very frequently.  The lengthy “A Child’s Tale” is a very sweet suite, showcasing some gorgeous flute writing, which was deliciously performed here.

Two masterpieces of cinema and music came  as a result of the Williams/Spielberg collaboration in 1993 – Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.  The concert piece from the former (showcasing the two main themes) is one of my personal favourites and shivers went down my spine when Katy Woolley played the opening horn part so dazzlingly.  Another standing ovation followed… and then another one came after Schindler’s List, with Lauri’s violin solo exquisite.  (That piece was introduced with dry British wit by Christine Pendrill, who introduced herself as “the principal cor anglais… well, in fact the only one” and listed various noble reasons why this piece is one of her favourites “…well, all that and because there’s a big part for me in it.”)

Then… time for more Star Wars.  Nothing needs to be said about “The Imperial March” (except that hearing it performed by this great orchestra in this venue is so powerful) – that was followed by Williams’s new arrangement of “Han Solo and the Princess”, quite slow and reverential, as if in some ways reflecting the characters more as they are in The Force Awakens than The Empire Strikes Back, for which he originally wrote the theme.  The scheduled programme then ended with the extended version of “The Throne Room”, which I love so much (I know some think it overdoes it but I love the longer treatment of it).

The reaction was explosive, rapturous – the longest ovation I recall being part of in one of these concerts (and I’ve been to a few).  Of course, there was more to come – Brossé signalled to the keyboardist, low murmuring began and before long everyone caught on when they heard those two notes emerging from the murky depths.  The conductor turned to give the audience a wink, and we were treated to the most powerful rendition of the concert version of the theme from Jaws I’ve ever heard (including on any recording).  Williams typically does three encores after his concerts – I imagined that the Star Wars piece which opening the evening had originally been intended to be one of them – now we had Jaws – so surely all that was left was the Raiders March.

Another member of the orchestra stood up to introduce it (sorry, I didn’t catch her name) – again she said that it was Williams responsible for her becoming a musician – and ended by saying “now we have one more piece… from my all-time favourite album…”  But it wasn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was The Empire Strikes Back – and “Yoda’s Theme”.  There was barely a dry eye in the house as this one played out – this heartfelt piece, written for a wise old man now playing like a magical tribute to its composer, another wise old man.  More wild applause, another ovation… eventually Brossé turned to the audience, raised his eyebrows, asked “One more?” – and finally here it was, the Raiders March, one final example of the indelible contribution John Williams has made to so many people’s lives.

It was a special evening, it really was – at the very start, the Royal Albert Hall’s artistic and commercial director Lucy Noble promised us that the orchestra was going to raise the roof in tribute to their great friend John Williams – which got as big a cheer from the musicians as it did from the audience – and at the end, when Brossé held up his conductor’s score there was an explosion of joy towards the genius composer being honoured.  Everyone there would have absolutely loved the “I was there” feeling if they’d got to see Williams himself lead the evening as expected, in such a glorious venue – but somehow it became something different, something magical in tribute to him.  Hearing one of the world’s great orchestras playing this most magnificent film music became a different kind of “I was there” event – a grand spectacle, with full credit to Dirk Brossé for stepping in and to the orchestra for a near-flawless parade through one classic after another.  If Williams really was listening, I’m sure he was very proud indeed.

Full programme:

Star Wars Main Theme
Close Encounters of the Third Kind Excerpts
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Hedwig’s Theme
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Fawkes the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Harry’s Wondrous World
Dracula End Title
ET Adventure on Earth

Superman Main Theme
The BFG A Child’s Tale
Jurassic Park Theme
Schindler’s List Theme
The Empire Strikes Back The Imperial March
The Empire Strikes Back Han Solo and the Princess
Star Wars Throne Room and Finale

Jaws Theme
The Empire Strikes Back Yoda’s Theme
Raiders of the Lost Ark Raiders March

Photographs (c) Christie Goodwin


  1. Geoff Leonard (Reply) on Saturday 27 October, 2018 at 22:58

    Nicely done, James, wish I could have been there, but reading this, I almost thought I was!

    • James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 27 October, 2018 at 23:13

      Thanks Geoff. I thought you might have been there and was looking around for you – it’s been a while!

  2. Adam Cousins (Reply) on Sunday 28 October, 2018 at 04:32

    Absolutely spot on review James – thank you. I can’t remember enjoying a concert quite so much, especially given the perceived disappointed in the couple of days leading up to it.

  3. Daniel Azevedo (Reply) on Sunday 28 October, 2018 at 08:46

    Hey, James,

    I was at the concert as well, though my response was less enthusiastic than yours, strictly for personal reasons: I planned the trip from Rio to London way ahead and spent a small fortune on second-hand tickets. When I heard of Williams falling ill and not conducting, I was disappointed and I guess it sort of embittered the whole experience for me.

    I thought the playing was flawless, but the concert selections were way too obvious. The announced programmes for his Vienna concert included other pieces (such as “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The Last Jedi”) that I thought were more enticing — perhaps there were some last minute changes? I have heard the Potter excerpts, “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars” several times in concert already. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing? I am also not a fan of the “Jaws” concert arrangement that crescendoes at the end instead of dying out, even though I agree the playing was very energetic.

    It was thrilling to see / hear the LSO, even from my next to last seat on the Rausing Circle, but the Williams no-show was a bummer, sadly. Overall, I would rate the experience 7/10.

    The standing ovation was a nice touch and one could really feel the good wishes in the room. The ovation Ennio Morricone got in Rome, in 2017, though, is forever etched in my memory as the most loving reaction I have ever felt from a concert crowd. I would rate that 11/10!

    I thought I spotted you in a yellow T-shirt at the Brian Tyler concert on the eve of Williams’. Was it really you?

    • A. Rubinstein (Reply) on Sunday 28 October, 2018 at 13:14

      I would also like to see slightly more advanced selections. There are way too many great Williams scores that have almost never been performed live: things like The Fury, Far and Away, Angela’s Ashes, Jane Eyre, The Reivers, Born on the Fourth of July etc. But I guess these concerts usually aim for the more casual audience, rather than hardcore film music fans, and therefore go for the more immediately recognizable hits.

      • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 28 October, 2018 at 13:30

        Oh I would absolutely love some less-common things too but I guess Williams saw this as his “farewell show” with the LSO and wanted to concentrate on all the old favourites. Last time he was here he did his tuba concerto and Sleepers and I can say the audience reaction was not the same as it was to Superman and Jurassic Park!

        Daniel – yes that was me in the yellow t shirt!

      • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 28 October, 2018 at 13:32

        Thinking about it, he also did Far and Away and The Reivers last time he was here. But not Jurassic Park or Superman. (And not Harry Potter, not least because he hadn’t written it yet.)

        • A. Rubinstein on Sunday 28 October, 2018 at 14:02

          The Harry Potter remark reminded me of a Jerry Goldsmith concert from 1975 I caught on youtube once. I kept thinking “wow, what a bold selection of pieces – only oldies and almost no crowd-pleasers.”

  4. Brendhan Sears (Reply) on Monday 29 October, 2018 at 06:40

    I had the great fortune of meeting Mr. Williams this past April where he did roughly the same program with the Chicago Symphony. I have seen him with Chicago every time since his debut at Ravinia Festival in 1994. I was 15.

    At 38, I was suddenly a kid again – shaking his hand nervously, speechless. He signed my Star Wars score and we spoke for a few minutes before it was time for him to take the stage. I really can’t tell you how much that moment meant to me.

    I am sorry that you weren’t able to see him. I loved the letter that he penned and I am glad he was able to listen. Hopefully Mr. Williams will recover soon and perhaps give a special encore.

    Thank you for sharing this review. It was just like being there and it made a grown man teary-eyed.

  5. Rory (Reply) on Tuesday 30 October, 2018 at 09:38

    Thanks for this. Bit of a departure from the usual fare, but a warm, touching chronicle of the event nonetheless. I’d be down for more concert write-ups if it’s something you enjoy.

    I’m worried for John. Not even so much that age is catching up with him— which is sad, though it happens to everybody– but I really hope the bulk of his twilight years have been spent in better health than this. Coupled with Force Awakens, I’m beginning to wonder if he’s been chronically ill all this time, and I really hope that’s not the case.

    Musically, we’re all better off for him doing what he does, but I hope he’s allowed himself the kind of attention and care he devotes to his body of work. He deserves it.