Music Album Review: 'Celebrating John Williams: Gustavo Dudamel/Los Angeles Philharmonic'

Cover photo © Los Angeles Philharmonic © 2019 Deutsche Grammophon

On March 29, Berlin-based Deutsche Grammophon released Celebrating John Williams: Gustavo Dudamel/Los Angeles Philharmonic, a 2-CD set that presents 19 of the world-renowned composer-conductor's best-known (and best-loved) themes. Recorded live at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's (LAP) home in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the album showcases music from Maestro Williams' illustrious career, including selections from the Harry Potter series, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other films by Steven Spielberg, the 1984 Summer Olympiad in Los Angeles, and more. 

No other world-class orchestra champions the classic film music tradition like the Los Angeles Philharmonic does - and the close working relationship its Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel has established with legendary film-music composer John Williams makes this the ultimate showcase album of the composer's greatest works. - Back cover blurb, Celebrating John Williams:  Gustavo Dudamel/Los Angeles Philharmonic

Celebrating John Williams is what I call a "Best Of..." sampler of the five-time Academy Award-winner's most famous works, adapted by Williams and other arrangers for public performances. It's not a comprehensive selection that covers the composer's nearly six-decade-long career in Hollywood; none of his movie themes from the late 1950s, 1960s, or early 1970s are presented in this album. The earliest film cues date from 1975, while the most recent is from 2015. 

Celebrating John Williams features a selection of unforgettable themes from Williams's much-loved scores for films and film series such as Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones. Back cover blurb, Celebrating John Williams:  Gustavo Dudamel/Los Angeles Philharmonic

It's fitting, perhaps, that this CD was recorded and released in early 2019, a year that marks the following observances:

  • John Williams' 87th birthday (February 8)
  • 50th Anniversary of The Reivers (Maestro Williams' third Oscar-nominated score)
  • 44th Anniversary of Jaws (his second Oscar win and first for original score)
  • 42nd Anniversary of Star Wars (his third Oscar win)
  • 42nd Anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • 40th Anniversary of Maestro Williams' selection as conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra
  • 20th Anniversary of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  • 18th Anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  • Maestro Williams' final score for the Star Wars film series (Star Wars: Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker)
This album is also a reminder that the collaboration between the world-famous composer and the LAP stretches back to the days when "John Williams" was known as "Johnny Williams" and was an up-and-coming piano player who performed with the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 1958. And, as the Celebrating John Williams liner notes booklet points out, Williams made his public conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1978.

"John, you must conduct at the Bowl," Philharmonic Executive Director Ernest Fleischmann implored the then-46-year-old composer. "I said, 'Ernest, I've only conducted in the studios, I don't conduct in public,'" Williams recalls. "It was a scary invitation, but a flattering one, so I accepted, to my lasting joy and pleasure." It was the start of a long and distinguished career conducting orchestras around the world, and he returns every summer to conduct the Phil at the Bowl.  - Jon Burlingame, Celebrating John Williams

 The double album also celebrates the friendship that links "the Phil's" current music and artistic director, Venezuela-born Gustavo Dudamel, and Maestro Williams. The 38-year-old conductor was only five months old when Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered in June of 1981, and Dudamel grew up listening to most of the themes presented on the two compact discs. The admiration is mutual, and Williams acknowledged his respect for Dudamel when, in 2015, he asked him to conduct the Main Title for Star Wars: Episode VII  - The Force Awakens during that film's scoring session. 

CD 1

1. Olympic Fanfare and Theme (4:01)
2. Excerpts (from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) (8:27)
3. Out To Sea / The Shark Cage Fugue (from “Jaws”) (4:23)
4. Hedwig’s Theme (from “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”) (4:58)
5. Fawkes The Phoenix (from “Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets”) (3:42)
6. Harry’s Wondrous World (from “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”) (4:40)
7. Theme (from “Schindler’s List”) (3:41)
8. Adventures On Earth (from “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”) (10:25)
9. The Flight To Neverland (from “Hook”) (4:48)

CD 2
1. Theme (from “Jurassic Park”) (5:56)
2. Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra (from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) (3:07)
3. Marion’s Theme (from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) (4:11)
4. The Raiders March (from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) (5:08)
5. Sayuri’s Theme (from “Memoirs of a Geisha”) (4:16)
6. The Imperial March (from “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”) (3:03)
7. Yoda’s Theme (from “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”) (3:36)
8. Throne Room and Finale (from “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope”) (7:57)
9. Adagio (from “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”) (4:33)

10. Superman March (from “Superman”) (4:25)

While there may be nothing really new in this recording for Williams aficionados who own recordings of the soundtracks or his many albums with the Boston Pops Orchestra, there may be little treasures of never-heard-before tracks here. I don't have any of the Harry Potter music CDs, so for me Hedwig's Theme and Fawkes The Phoenix are cool little discoveries. And although I do own the Walt Disney Records Star Wars: The Force Awakens soundtrack, I have not heard the Adagio outside the movie itself.

This collection of concert hall arrangements isn't - like other "celebration" albums from other record labels - a gaggle of tracks from older recordings. It was recorded over a three-day period in January by producer Dmitriy Lipay and sound engineer Alexander Lipay for executive producer Ute Fesquet. It was, as I said earlier, taped at the LAP's home in Walt Disney Concert Hall, and uses the latest digital technology to deliver a lively, crisp presentation of some of the most beloved film themes of the modern era.