When it comes to pop culture music — not pop music — no one is more iconic than John Williams. The man has written the soundtracks for some of the most beloved pop culture franchises. Many of our favorite films wouldn’t be the same without the genius of Williams’ music.

Last night I was honored to attend the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s concert paying tribute to the music of John Williams. The concert was an amazing representation of what Williams means to pop culture.

Charleston Symphony Orchestra

The CSO is based in Charleston, South Carolina. Several years back, during a strong economic downturn, the CSO faced a shutdown. The people of Charleston were not okay with losing such a fundamental component of their arts community and were able to rescue the CSO from perdition.

John Williams
For the record, it’s not his birthday. I’m just as confused as you are.

I’ve been to several of the CSO’s performances, and I’m always blown away. Orchestral music doesn’t get a whole lot of attention in our culture. With Taylor Swifts and Lady Gaga’s, few people pay attention to chamber music. There’s a general assumption that orchestral music is stuffy, old-fashioned, and not fun. But man, the CSO proved all that wrong last night.

The CSO’s tribute to John Williams was anything but boring. The music itself is fun. It’s hard not to have a good time when you’re listening to beloved classics like the theme from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or E.T., But it was clear that the musicians were there to have a good time too.

Yuriy Bekker

Yuriy Bekker, the conductor of the CSO, hammed it up big time. He began the concert wearing Indiana Jones’ signature fedora, cracking a joke about how much he hated snakes. When the HARRY POTTER theme was being played, he and several of the musicians donned Harry Potter-esque glasses.

The coup de grace, however, was when the CSO played the theme from JURASSIC PARK. Bekker quickly ducked backstage and emerged in an inflatable T-Rex costume. He proceeded to conduct the orchestra in full costume. The audience couldn’t get enough. It was impossible not to enjoy yourself watching a T-Rex conducting. The show was, in general, a great time.

John Williams
Bekker accidentally referred to him as “Kyle Rain,” and no, I’m not letting that go.

The concert got serious nerd cred when, for the STAR WARS finale, the 501st Legion showed up. Kylo Ren joined the CSO on stage and ended up fist-bumping at one point, which is the most Kylo Ren thing I can think of. These professional cosplayers are as legit as legit gets; having the 501st show up really hammered home that this was a fun concert. This was a concert for pop culture nerds, not some stuffy, old-fashioned show.

The Music

The program for the concert reads like a who’s who of pop culture. The show began with music from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and from there ran the gamut of fun movies from my childhood (and the less fun but still amazing SCHINDLER’S LIST). John Williams has written the music from some amazing franchises.

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The program included music from LINCOLN, THE COWBOYS, HARRY POTTER, E.T., SUPERMAN, JURASSIC PARK, and of course, STAR WARS. For two hours I went on a trip down memory lane as I revisited some of my childhood favorites. Even the JAWS motif made a brief appearance.

It’s amazing to think that one man has had such a massive influence on all these mega-popular franchises. Without John Williams’ music, would INDIANA JONES have that same fun feeling? Would HARRY POTTER feel as magical without Hedwig’s Theme? Would we know to fear the water without the iconic two-note motif from JAWS?

Controversy

Despite being an icon of film music, John Williams is somewhat controversial. He’s well known as a notorious mooch, borrowing bits and pieces from other composers to create his music. Now, obviously, a lot of music shows clear influences from other music. That’s just a fact of musical studies. But John Williams is a particularly noticeable borrower.

Check out this video:

John Williams is an icon in the film industry. He’s been nominated for more Best Original Score Oscars than any composer in history. But this video begs the question — how “original” are we talking here?

Of course, despite his borrowing, Williams is an insanely talented composer. He borrows heavily, sure. But he takes these bits and pieces that he borrows and puts them together in a new way.

THE COWBOYS

Williams role as borrower-creator was evident during last night’s concert. One of the pieces the CSO played was the music from the 1974 TV series THE COWBOYS. I had never heard of this series at all — but when I heard the music, it was instantly familiar.

Even if you’ve never seen or heard of THE COWBOYS, like me, you know this music. When you think of Americana or the Wild West, this music fits. It’s classic, iconic, and brings the feeling that you get with Hollywood Westerns.

Another reason this music is so familiar is that it draws heavily on American composer Aaron Copland. Copland originated the bombastic, brass-heavy Americana music that Williams is pulling from. Compare Williams’ version to Copland’s “Rodeo:”

It’s not a straight copy. There’s an obvious derivation there, but there is also clear original creation. Williams is taking a famous composer, whose work is iconic as representing the American West, and rearranging it. The music from THE COWBOYS is a perfect representation of how Williams manages to blend his own work with the classics to create the iconic music we know and love.

You have to give the man his due. For all who complain that he’s nothing but a mooch — you have a point, but you’re ultimately wrong. Williams shows a deft understanding of how to use music to represent ideas clearly and concisely.

John Williams’ Legacy

At 85, John Williams shows no sign of slowing down. He is currently continuing his work on the STAR WARS franchise by scoring THE LAST JEDI. Williams’ STAR WARS work is perhaps his most iconic (aside from perhaps JAWS).

One of the many things Williams does well that is evident in STAR WARS is his use of leitmotifs, or small motifs that represent a specific character. Each character has their own individual theme, and when you hear their music, you think of the character.

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After the concert, I was able to get a minute with Bekker to discuss his perspective on the legacy of John Williams. The CSO recently performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (the Ode to Joy), one of the most famous pieces of music of all time. I asked him where Williams stood against greats like Beethoven.

Bekker replied that these composers are in completely different worlds. Beethoven is so iconic that all following composers are naturally indebted to him. But that doesn’t mean that Williams isn’t an icon in his own right. Bekker praised Williams writing as “lush” and “gorgeous,” with “virtuostic string pieces.”

John Williams
Wise words from a man in a T-Rex costume.

Bekker also admitted that Williams’ music isn’t easy, but stated that he was proud of the CSO for their strong performance. I highly agree. I know Williams music back and front, both from my own listening and from repeated movie marathons. But there’s something special about seeing an orchestra perform the music live. In the music hall, with the sounds filling the chamber, you really feel a part of something special.

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