Review: Orchestra Iowa brings gusto and grace to John Williams’ beloved film scores

Orchestra Iowa explored the cinematic world of John Williams last weekend. — image courtesy of Orchestra Iowa

When I spoke with Maestro Timothy Hankewich a few days ahead of Orchestra Iowa’s presentation “John Williams: A Night at the Movies,” he was insistent about one thing.

The audience should come to the Paramount Theatre in costume.

So Saturday night, I donned a Superman t-shirt and grabbed my reviewing notebook and a pen. With my glasses in place, I figured I had both the Man of Steel and the mild mannered reporter identities covered.

For their part, the musicians of Orchestra Iowa (many of whom wore hilarious costumes of their own for the second half of the concert) certainly had Williams’ iconic music covered. From the soaring brass to the lush strings, the orchestra played this familiar music with gusto and grace.

In our conversation, I asked Hankewich why he had programmed a night of Williams’ music.

“Well, because of its mass popular appeal,” he said, “and because it is some of the finest crafted film music of our generation.”

That’s a powerful combination, and it appeals to listeners and musicians alike. Hankewich was clear about the composer’s influence in his life. “I am of the first generation of musicians who were inspired in 1977 when Star Wars first came out,” he told me.

There was some inspired musicianship on display Saturday night. The trumpets scaled the range of ever-higher notes in the Superman March, concertmaster Dawn Gingrich played the solo in the theme from Schindler’s List beautifully and the orchestra captured the feeling of flight — whether a furious flurry or a sedate gliding — in “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, idle on stage for much of the performance, offered lovely vocals when called upon for “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan and “Somewhere in My Memory,” from Home Alone.

“What sets [Williams] apart from his contemporaries,” Hankewich told me, “is the depth of his musical chops. He really knows how to orchestrate, and that’s a lost art.” He also praised the composer as “a stylistic chameleon” able to brilliantly employ whatever style he needs.

During the concert, Hankewich pointed out that even when a movie is a flop, like the John Belushi film 1941, Williams’ music rises above. After conducting “The March” from 1941, a piece played on many patriotic pops programs, Hankewich called it “a perfect example of how the craftsmanship of John Williams can survive even a bad movie.”

That craftsmanship, according to Hankewich, is rare. “When you play music of a lesser film composer without the accompanying images,” he told me, “it meanders and goes nowhere. John Williams’ music stands on its own.”

It’s an excellent point, and one that should have been heeded in the planning for the concert. Instead, a large screen loomed over the orchestra. On it were displayed movie posters, stills and the occasional bit of Williams-related trivia. One of those facts popped on screen during the most moving portion of “Theme” from Schindler’s List, emphasizing what a distraction the images were. The images were also glitchy, which drew the eye almost against one’s will. Given that Williams is so associated with positive experiences involving movie screens, it’s a shame that this screen was such a distraction from the fine work of the orchestra.

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I asked Hankewich if he had considered programming any of Williams’ non-film work for this concert. “People would be surprised at how adventuresome John Williams’ concert music can be,” he told me. He recalled performing one such work, which he described as a “serially atonal piece that was so thorny it drove people away.”

None of the music on Saturday night drove anyone away. The audience was absolutely giddy with excitement as Hankewich, conducting with a lightsaber, and the orchestra performed “Main Title” from what the Maestro called “the greatest score of all time.” It’s hard to listen to the Star Wars theme with fresh ears, but the orchestra brought energy to the performance and brought the audience to its feet for a sustained ovation.

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