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John Williams 90th Birthday Celebration

7:30pm Mansfield Theater

Why You Shouldn't Miss It

This concert celebrates the 90th birthday of John Williams, considered one of the greatest film composers of all time. His neoromantic style, greatly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Wagner, often employs leitmotif, a recurrent theme associated with a particular person, idea or situation. Tunes like ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’ and ‘Yoda’s Theme’ are stunning, and recur throughout Star Wars as the characters appear and reappear. Williams composed the scores for nine of the top 25 highest-grossing films at the US box office. 

For many young Americans, his film scores are an on-ramp to classical music. Williams modernized film scoring and continues to influence other composers of film, popular, and contemporary classical music. The orchestra will present highlights from film works that span 1972 through today, starting with the overture from The Cowboys, a John Wayne western featuring a rousing theme that instantly conjures up images of galloping horses and sweeping landscapes. It reveals the young Williams as a true genius in the making.

No retrospective would be complete without 1977’s epic and iconic score for Star Wars. In 2005, the American Film Institute selected it as the greatest film score of all time! George Lucas proclaimed Williams to be “the secret sauce of Star Wars, the greatest composer-conductor in the universe.” We’ll present the fruit of four of the numerous Stephen Spielberg collaborations, including the marches from 1941 (1979) and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), along with highlights from Jurassic Park (1993) and the emotional and sensitive score for E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982).

Williams created the exquisitely beautiful and intimate score to Angela's Ashes in 1999, utilizing harp to evoke Ireland, along with strings, prominent piano, oboe, and solo cello. Starting in 2001, Williams scored the first three of the Harry Potter films. ‘Hedwig’s Theme,’ another example of leitmotif, was featured throughout the eight-film franchise.

John Williams writes scores that make any symphony orchestra do what symphony orchestras do best: rich sounds, bold colors, contrasted textures, and no end of drama.


Recent Star Wars movie director
J.J. Abrams said, Williams “writes feelings… and knows how to make your heart soar like no one else.”

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Program Notes


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If there’s one classical composer who needs no introduction, it’s legendary and prolific film composer John Williams, almost certainly the most-heard composer in history. 

(Any other claimants to that particular throne will have to contend with the 10 films at least partially scored by him which remain among the top 30 ticket-selling movies of all time.) Given his commitment to and repopularization of the epic Hollywood orchestral film sound, those who work in the orchestral music field owe him an enormous, if immeasurable debt; John Williams can take credit for introducing many listeners to the power and the beauty of orchestra. 

Williams’s critics accuse him of borrowing (stealing, plagiarizing, etc.) works of other composers, and the influences on his scores are there for all to see, if you know where to look. But to criticize Williams for this is to misunderstand the job he’s been asked to do: that is, to find the music that captures the emotional heart of the scene, to ensure the audience follows the journey the film is taking them on. (In Steven Spielberg’s words, without his scores, “bikes don’t really fly, dinosaurs do not walk the earth, and we do not wonder, weep, or believe.”) “Creativity” means something different for a film composer: not “to do something unprecedented” (though many, including Williams, have) but “to connect with the audience in precisely the way the scene demands.” Sometimes that means giving them something they’ve never heard before, and sometimes it means to meet them on familiar ground.

So while many of Williams’s scores are among the most recognizable on the planet, it’s not necessarily possible to identify a characteristic “Williams sound.” Having contributed to well over 100 projects (depending on how you count), Williams had to constantly adapt to the demands of the work at hand, including situations where the most appropriate approach is for the music to mesh with the film without calling attention to itself. (Only a particularly zealous Williams fan could spontaneously hum a few bars of, say, Sleepers.)

Williams’s most familiar compositional mode might be called his “heroic,”or perhaps “popcorn,” style-—those blockbuster-y, fast-paced, crowd-pleasing movies, often directed by Spielberg or George Lucas. But even within this repertoire you’ll find variations: The march from Raiders of the Lost Ark has a jaunty, rakish bent appropriate for its swashbuckling hero Indiana Jones. The music for Star Wars-—inspired by both Gustav Holst and golden-age film composer Erich Korngold-—with its soaring fanfares and noble melodies, takes on a more epic, call it galactic, dimension. The Cowboys Overture reaches into Aaron Copland’s bag of tricks to find an appropriately western sound. And Jurassic Park  achieves a kind of awe-filled spaciousness wide enough for dinosaurs.

But of course other scores need not reach this sort of grandiosity. For 1941, Spielberg’s early zany, war-era comedy, WIlliams wrote a march which is sheer giddiness in musical form. For Angela’s Ashes, a memoir of impoverished immigrant life set in 1930s Ireland and New York, he achieved the appropriate melancholy with poignant lines for piano, strings, and solo woodwinds. And for the magic of Harry Potter, Williams wrote a theme reminiscent of another magical tale filled with wizards, curses, and people becoming animals: Tchaikovsky’s
Swan Lake.

Williams’s most impressive compositional achievement is arguably his score for another Spielberg hit: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. In this case, Howard Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony acted as a model, even being used as a temp track (place-holder music until the score could be finished) for the editing process. During the final 10 or so minutes of the film (from when the boys jump on their bikes, for those who are familiar), the score unfolds  continuously (and brilliantly), following the twists and turns of the movie’s climax. The most impressive part of the sequence may be that, when Williams extracted it for a concert piece, much of it could remain unaltered. Generally, a fair amount of surgery has to take place to convert film music to concert music, but in this case, the music is able to do double duty: On the one hand, it traces the plot to such a faithful degree that fans can actually follow the film in their mind’s eye; on the other, it provides a concert experience as satisfying and well-constructed as any Richard Strauss tone poem.

America's favorite film composer has scored more than 100 films in his stellar seven-decade career

October 1 2022

Guest Conductor
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