John Williams is the most celebrated film composer of all time, producing some of the most iconic soundtracks in film history: Star Wars; Harry Potter; E.T.; Indiana Jones; Jaws; Superman; the list is endless. John Williams is famed for writing sweeping, epic orchestral scores, often for well over a hundred players. As a result, the decision to do an eighty-minute concert of John Williams’ music with a chamber ensemble of only twenty, in a small, intimate rock-gig-esque standing venue, may strike some as perverse, but it’s certainly an interesting idea.
The Jazz Café’s dry acoustic, close mic-ing, and scarcity of instrumentalists means there is nowhere to hide, so requires an extremely high standard of musicianship. Fortunately, we got this in the brass, which blasted and skittered through Williams’ soaring themes with great gusto, always in sync and offering plenty of subtlety too. The woodwind were also excellent, with special mention to the gorgeous, full-bodied oboe.
The same, sadly, could not be said of the strings. Yes, solo violinist Dan Oats offered a beautiful Schindler’s List, and solo cellist Tom Wraith a yearning, melancholy Memoirs of a Geisha. But unfortunately as a group, tuning and rhythm issues — as well as amateurish squeaks — occurred so frequently that even simple sustained chords sounded out of tune. Williams’ characteristic rapid string flourishes and rich, lyrical melodies appeared to prove too challenging.
A genial conductor (not introduced) held it together, offering amusing anecdotes about the composer, though sometimes conducting at too slow a pace, while some phraseless, unmusical passages suggested the ensemble was lacking in practice. It was disappointing to see people in the crowd wince throughout the concert, and many left early. This may have been because people’s feet were already tired by the time the concert started two hours after the advertised start time, as some complained to bar staff. Overall, a great idea, but a reverb-less chamber interpretation of virtuosic orchestral music requires an exceptional, well-rehearsed ensemble, and we didn’t get that tonight.
The Jazz Cafe hosts live music of all styles, seven days a week.