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BACK IN VIENNA

05/04/2022 | Por: Conrado Xalabarder
CRONICAS

Gerard Pastor, the two-time MundoBSO Awards nominee, has returned to Vienna to listen once more to the concerts of John Williams, who has also returned to the Austrian capital. On that occasion, he wrote about it in Beethoven, Brahms… and
Williams, the most read article on our website in 2020. This time, he expands and goes further into detail.

----------------

by Gerard Pastor

(translated by Aina Girbau)

  • CONCERT MUSIC VS. FILM MUSIC

We have always wondered why John Williams’ concert music has generally received less interest than his film music. In a feature story on his anniversary, published in the New York Times, it was pointed out that his concert music is less imaginative than his film music. The first that comes to my mind is Sound the Bells! or the Tuba Concerto and I disagree. This is not the parameter to explain this fact, and, although it is something worth a good discussion, various articles and a fantastic debate, I will allow myself to present my point of view after years of listening to his music, along with what I’ve lived in Vienna these two days, especially with the European premiere of his Violin Concerto n.2.

One of the main differences between film music and concert music is the length of the pieces and subsequently the musical form that stems from them, meaning, which parts it has, how they are arranged, and how they relate to each other. The longer the length and the more parts a piece has, the more complex the writing process becomes. When a piece becomes especially long, we speak of large form, something that very few composers throughout history have managed to master. There are great composers of songs or cycles of short pieces (where film music could be placed) who have not shone in their attempts to write concertos for soloists, symphonies or other large-format works. However, it is very rare to find the opposite. Finally, I wanted to stress that a good writing process for this kind of work usually requires a lot of time, calm, crossing out, rewriting, wondering, listening well, revisiting (Williams' first violin concerto was written in 1976 and revised in 2016) etc. It is not just a matter of sitting for longer in front of the piece of paper and using more pencils, but time for everything to settle inside the composer, who has the great challenge of creating a great conflict that must be resolved and leave us all, starting with himself, in peace at the end, is vital. Forcing this process can directly affect the quality of the resulting works, something that is usually recognisable in our concert halls when composers have the pressure of delivery (as in the cinema), and with today's culture that rarely encourages revision from academic institutions. This time and pause is what Williams has had in this concerto, which, for me, along with the Prelude and Scherzo for piano and orchestra, is his best concert work to date. In the same interview he remarked that the Hollywood hiatus due to the pandemic gave him the opportunity to devote himself to concert music. He said:

I don’t particularly want to make films anymore. Six months of life is a long time at my age.

It is inevitable to think that all the necessary pieces have come together for the Maestro to have begun writing concert music like never before, and that this is why we have been in Vienna for the premiere of a work of this calibre.

  • FOUR HISTORIC CONCERTS

The two concerts in February 2020 were historic for several reasons: his debut in Vienna, his first European concert in a long time, and they also symbolised something very special: they meant that one of the most traditional symphonic institutions in the world recognised great film music as classical music. The two concerts in 2022 also leave a mark in History: they have meant the recognition of Williams as a composer outside film music, with the European premiere of the second violin concerto, with an orchestra and in a hall that in its day premiered works such as Brahms' second symphony. These events have an immense impact on the future of the profession of composers and it is a fact that, for years, film music has been increasingly taking a prominent place in concert halls. It is evident that interest in the non-film music of these composers is also on the rise.

Film music has been a temple that has allowed the musical language to further evolve in a line away from the noise and academic pressure of the avant-garde of the 20 th and 21 st century. This development has been closely linked to American music (Gershwin, Barber, Bernstein, Copland...) or to the music of European composers that emigrated to the United States (Rachmaninov, Rozsa, Korngold...). It has had the virtue of being a music that has connected with the general public, not because it is commercial, but because it is direct. It is unsurprising that in such a context there are more and more composition prizes won by authors with a foot in the door of the film scoring world, that they get commissioned more and more work, or that they are invited to conduct more often. Nor is it surprising what happened at the concert organised by the Fundación la Caixa under the name Música Imprescindible («Essential Music») held at the Liceu in Barcelona, in December 2021. The concert was a review of the History of music from 1600 to the present day through significant symphonic works of each period. When the 20 th -21 st century came up, the concert’s organisers chose a suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird and a suite of film music with Morricone or Williams among others.

It is a transformation, and the Vienna Philharmonic has been there twice: to open its doors and to give wings to this global change that is being played at all levels (from top-level orchestras to amateur ensembles from any corner of the world), where film composers are no longer valued as second-rate composers for making films. There are good and bad symphonists, songwriters, jazz composers, and also good and bad film music composers. They are not better or worse for working on a particular genre. Music is music, and in the audiovisual field, it has the privilege of being able to have a life beyond the purpose for which it was created. This is one of the greatest features of John Williams’ music: in the film, it is magnificent because of its functionality and without the film, it is magnificent because of its musicality.

  • THE WILLIAMS/MUTTER/WIENER TRIO

It is a perfect combination. Even though they play at home, with the whole audience giving a standing ovation from the very entrance of the Maestro to the stage, their involvement is complete. Saturday’s concert was good, but Sunday’s concert was even better, as is usually the case. In both concerts, one could breathe the concentration and complicity on stage. One could see that things were working from the glances between musicians, the soloist and the conductor. There were numerous smiles on stage as the different musical passages went by. In one of the encores, the theme from The Adventures of Tintin (11) in the version for violin and orchestra, Anne-Sophie Mutter sought the gaze of the concertmaster in a very rhythmic  passage in which they played exactly the same thing as if to say: this is great! William’s connection with the orchestra’s timpani was also remarkable, especially at the end of the pieces in the second part.

The program kicked off with Sound the Bells! A bright and festive overture-like piece that Williams wrote for a Boston Pops tour around Japan in 1993, and which coincided with the wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito and Masako Owada. It was the first of many works with a very demanding role for the brass section. After this came the concert´s masterpiece: the Violin Concerto No.2 is not an easy piece to listen to. Written for Anne-Sophie Mutter, it is of a dense, complex expressionist style, with many sections, contrasts, colours… Its orchestration gives it an aesthetically fabulous personality and it is the hook that leads us through each of its sections. It starts from the depths, with low chords coloured by the harp, played brilliantly by Anneleen Lenaerts, one of the world’s best on her instrument. In this piece, the harp is placed to the right of the conductor: an atypical position for this instrument, almost as if it were a second soloist. After a brief initial introduction, the string rests on a calm D major chord. A calm that ends with the first note of the violin, a natural F that destabilises the peace of the major chord, causes that calm to vanish completely and warns us that this calm
needs its storm. The violin starts rather shyly but with great intensity, which is maintained throughout the whole concerto and that few violinists like Mutter can not only maintain but enrich and shape. This initial intensity and drama is contagious and spreads throughout the orchestra creating a great first articulation that leads to a first great forte. After this, a second idea, more placid in its beginning and that will gradually be stirred up. It is the origin of the contrast that will be developed throughout the whole piece. The drama is served.

Although there are four movements, this piece is articulated on the basis of this idea of initial contrast and it is really hard to feel that there is a division between movements. The ideas that follow one another fly more and more and reach higher and higher levels of intensity, drawing a single great arch from beginning to end. An intensity that ends for me at one of the crucial points: a small duet between timpani and the violin soloist. Both musicians performed it to perfection. Following this turning point, a long descent begins, which will not be in a straight line either. Williams keeps expanding ideas but in an increasingly expressive and not so expansive manner, that is, more lyricism and less impact or volume in general. This flight back eventually leads to potentially one of the most beautiful and spiritually pacifying codas ever written. After a great storm, the final calm is sublime, on par with the coda of Shostakovich’s 8 th symphony. Williams repeatedly does a plagal or introverted cadenza, a type of cadenza classically used in closings or finales, but he presents it in a surprising and never-before-seen way. This is one of the features that depicts William’s greatness: he is able to start from classical traditions and references to keep surprising and reinventing himself piece after piece. In the same interview mentioned above, he also commented:

I feel like I am sitting on the edge of something

Whilst in 2011 there were countless composers looking for new sonorities with synthesisers, effects, etc. (and they still are), Williams started the opening credits of Tintin with a melody played simultaneously by a harpsichord, a bass clarinet and a piano. A unique sonority that I had never seen and have never seen since, in a theme that surprises to the last note in all musical parameters. He created a sonority that will endure in a theme that will continue to be heard for generations. And what is astonishing is that what makes this music everlasting is what lies beyond this sonority. This edge should not be lost as it is not a fad. It is made of something that stands the test of time and is therefore as valid to us as it was in the past. As composers, we have been told not to try to be John Williams, there is only one of him and yet Hans Zimmer said something with which I could not agree more:

We need him more now than we have ever needed him before

The most important thing is that all of those who want to sit on that same edge, do. I can’t imagine some of the works by John Powell, Benjamin Wallfisch or especially Gordy Haab without wanting to be John Williams.

The end of the violin concerto led into a long final silence with an audience that was extremely connected to him. It wasn’t until Williams lowered his arms and Mutter her violin that the audience broke into a very long ovation. After such a heavy concert, and with so much drama, it was a pleasure to have a romantic and unexpected encore: a violin and orchestra version of the main theme of The Long Goodbye (73), from Robert Altman’s film. A piece that yours truly, like many others, didn’t know in a version that speaks more of how Mutter and Williams really feel the piece, than how it was in its original version.

Go to the second and last part

Spanish version, here.

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