LOS ANGELES, CA-  As part of their centennial season, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed a series of concerts celebrating the music of John Williams. Coming on the heels of their Williams-heavy summer season, the performance presented a series of contrasts. How would it compare to the spectacular show marking the 40th anniversary of the composer’s first appearance with the Phil and conducted in part by the maestro himself?  Would it convey the same awe and breathtaking precision as the music-to-film performances of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, conducted by David Newman? Having seen the prior shows, I decided to go all in and wrap up my own Williams odyssey with the Disney Hall celebration.

The experiences were obviously different at a fundamental level: the Bowl is a festive, family-friendly atmosphere with massive crowds, while Disney Hall is intimate and elegant. Dudamel, while brilliant and always nearly hypnotic as he conducts, is not a “movie guy.” How would the shows compare? Knowing my own tastes, I correctly suspected before the show began that I would prefer the Hollywood Bowl performances, but it was still amazing to see Dudamel and the orchestra at such close proximity.

In particular, the location of our seats provided us a close-up view of the screen Dudamel used to time his conducting to the film clips. Over the summer, we could see that conductor Newman’s screen had a series of vertical lines that moved across the image, but it was way too far away to extrapolate much beyond the fact that they were time indicators.

At Disney Hall, by contrast, I was able to see that they were various colors. My companion, a professional musician, could easily break them down to explain what each indicated — key and time changes, final beats, etc. Essentially, the smaller venue meant that we had a rare view into the mind of the conductor. I found myself frequently staring at the moving lines, anticipating Dudamel’s next gestures. His conducting is always beautiful, and these insights meant I knew when to look for major signals.

It was a bit surprising, however, that there were not more of the video clips. Maybe it’s not just that kind of venue — or perhaps it was because they were filming the performance we attended — but only a handful of the pieces were played to film. Taking that element out of the equation, I focused more on the individual musicians and their contributions to the music.

Part of what gives Williams’ pieces their distinctive sound is the fact that each score highlights so many sections of the orchestra. Each instrument has its moment to sing out above the rest, and his approach truly honors each one. In this intimate setting, you could feel the love for each instrument and fully appreciate every musicians’ contribution to the greater whole.

The evening encompassed the gamut of Williams’ greatest hits, from Star Wars and Harry Potter to Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park. They also included less iconic pieces from Hook and Memoirs of a Geisha, which brought to mind movies I’d long forgotten. Williams must be fond of the Hook score — it was also played during the summer performances — though it had less joy and energy than the other music. There’s nothing that can compare to a full orchestra playing “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme).”

Ultimately, I didn’t love the performance as much as the summer shows. As E.T. and Elliott flew into the air on their bicycle, tears dripped down my cheeks at the Bowl.  Here, minus the film clip, it remained really good music but was not heart-wrenching. It made me realize that the music needs the film just as much as the film needs the music. I’m also still aching to hear the iconic “approaching shark” music from Jaws rather than the piece they actually played.

The greatest unsung hero of the LA Phil team remains the merchandising person, who has been on point so much and so consistently that a visit to the store is now a highlight of each performance I attend. They didn’t disappoint, with Death Star-shaped plates, “Bite Me” shark socks, and more fun touches. I’d also brought my own light-up shark dorsal fin headband, purchased at the Bowl over the summer. Though I wore it in from the parking garage, I quickly took it off when I realized that no one was wearing any movie-themed items at all.

Sure, I didn’t expect the full Darth Vader look you may see on audience members in the summer, but I thought that surely there would be some Potter scarves or R2-D2 dresses. And yet, no: there was nary a TIE fighter earring in sight. I had covered my fin and settled in for the evening, only to see stray dorsal flashes at inopportune moments throughout the night. While it provided some personal comic relief, I’d definitely learned my lesson. It actually wasn’t until the rousing applause and jubilant standing ovation at the end of the night that I was even sure if these were big Williams fans or just regular season ticket holders.

The performance ended with a sweet touch. John Williams himself came out on the stage to conduct his version of “Happy Birthday” in tribute to the evening’s birthday boy, Gustavo Dudamel. Williams even conducted the audience, signaling when we were to join in singing. And here the evening fully hit the joyful energy I associate so strongly with Williams.  People love his music because it’s so fun and approachable, in the most positive sense.

The Hollywood Bowl calendar is already out for summer 2019, and David Newman will back to conduct the LA Phil’s music-to-film performance of Williams’ score for Jurassic Park. You can bet I’ll be there, wearing something dino-rific. And I’ll be counting down the days until I can see their dino merchandising, too. In LA, after all, what better marriage could there be than film and music?

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WDCH Refik 9/26/18. Photo by Dustin Downing. Courtesy of L.A. Phil. Used with permission.
WDCH Refik 9/26/18. Photo by Dustin Downing. Courtesy of L.A. Phil. Used with permission.