Friday, April 28, 2017

Music That's Out of This World

I've blogged before (on several occasions) about a series of concerts performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in which they play an entire film's score live in sync with the film itself. With the kind of career composer John Williams has had, it's not surprising that his work is often the subject of these performances. So it was again last night, when the CSO presented E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial.

Usually, when I go to these symphony screenings, it's for a film I know very well, or have at least watched rather recently. Not so this time. I think this was only the third time I've seen the movie, having caught it as a kid during its original release, and then once later in its 20th anniversary DVD release (with controversial George Lucas style alterations and additions that director Steven Spielberg later removed to restore the original film).

Because it's been around 15 years since I last watched the movie, I wasn't able to pay quite as much attention to the orchestra as I usually do during these performances. I had to devote more focus to the movie itself, particularly during the several long sequences that are entirely driven by the visuals, with little or no dialogue. It's a shame, because these sequences -- like the opening, in which E.T. is left behind by his people -- were always showcases for John Williams and the music I was really there for.

Still, I was able to enjoy the concert. And while I would have said the E.T. score was one I knew very well, I learned a lot in seeing it performed. Williams goes very light on the brass in this score; 9 out of 10 times you're hearing horns, it's french horn and not trumpet or trombone. There's also far more harp in the mix than I'd remembered (or noticed) before. But the star of score, the instrument on which E.T.'s own theme is usually played, is the piccolo -- not its big cousin the flute. It's an instrument that Williams rarely uses in his scores (or at least, rarely uses in a prominent way), and it's perfect for the childlike sense of wonder that permeates this movie.

Despite all those different choices in instrumentation, E.T. actually doesn't come across as one of John Williams most original scores. Released in 1982, the movie came one year after Raiders of the Lost Ark, and two years after The Empire Strikes Back. Both of those films -- especially Raiders -- have their sonic fingerprints all over E.T. If you accelerate the tempo just a bit, the same chord progressions of E.T., the same way the whole orchestra underpins the soloists, could support Indiana Jones' theme. The sinister woodwind theme of the scientists feels like a blend of Boba Fett's theme from Empire and the Nazi theme from Raiders. It's still great music, and works great for the film, but it does feel more strongly connected to John Williams' other work at the time than most of his iconic scores do.

The movie itself might get a review in a later post. But as for this concert experience, I'd grade it a B+... though maybe it only slipped below an A-level grade for my lack of preparedness, and that's on me. This film/concert series continues to be a great part of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's programming (and many of these same films are screened by orchestras around the country). I can't recommend them highly enough to fans of film music.

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