Great music in cinema is often most powerful when it's subtle and in the background. It sets the scene and evokes emotion that fits the scene, while still staying out of the way. John Williams has made a career out of it, racking up honors and awards, and working with some of the best directors in Hollywood to help give many recent classics the music that have stayed with us even decades later.
During a special one-night performance on Tuesday at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, the conductor led the New York Philharmonic in some of his most famous works and also other music that helped pave and define "Hollywood's Golden Age." With Williams at the helm,, the orchestra played selections from The Adventures of Robin Hood (Korngold), Vertigo (Herrmann), and Spartacus (North) in succession, which then set the stage for Williams' own compositions.
The music throughout the evening ranged in genre and style, from exciting and hopeful to chilling and solemn. And many of the pieces hit both notes, with medleys or samples painting a vivid picture of the ups and downs of the films themselves. Even the order of the music reflected that diversity -- three songs from Schindler's List followed the tango from Scent of a Woman but preceded excerpts from Fiddler on the Roof.
Perhaps the best portions of the night came with the help of a large projector behind the orchestra that silently aired scenes from movies for which Williams provided the scores. They lined up perfectly parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with live music. Then, just after, the orchestra played "Adventures on Earth" from E.T. without the projector behind it, and the audience used its imagination to recall the pivotal scenes. The film was still firmly in our minds without the visual aid or enhancement.
For much of the second act, Williams was joined up front by talented violinist Gil Shaham. While the rest of the orchestra sat nearby, Shaham danced with his instrument during the tango as if it was his partner, crouched down during more mellow moments, and gave some sort of expression to practically note he played. Shaham never uttered a word during his half hour on stage. On this night, Hollywood's greatest music spoke for itself.