Conductor John Williams to receive tribute

| Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Heinz Hall was a movie theater before it was a concert hall, which makes it a perfect venue to celebrate the brilliant achievements of composer John Williams.

His ability to write memorable music that helps cement iconic film moments in our minds is matched by his versatility and sustained excellence. Winning five Oscars is a tremendous achievement. Being nominated 48 times is astonishing.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra resident conductor Lawrence Loh had the opportunity to work with Williams in June 2011 when the composer conducted the symphony at a special concert.

“I was completely star-struck when I first met him,” Loh says. “I found him to be a genuinely nice person who loves the Pittsburgh Symphony and loves working with the orchestra. I think his humility is one of the things that was most striking, given his accomplishments and fame.”

Loh will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops in “The Music of John Williams” at concerts Jan. 23 to 26 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Williams' music is often heard at Loh's home in Squirrel Hill, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their children, Charlie, 11, and Hilary, 8.

“Our kids are huge John Williams fans, and Charlie got to meet him. One of the things we love to do is play different John Williams pieces and ask what movie they're from,” Loh says.

Loh's program will focus on Williams' collaborations with Steven Spielberg on the first half, including music from “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Munich” and “E.T.”

The second half will be devoted to music from the early “Harry Potter” films and “Star Wars.”

“The thing I'm really excited about, especially if you're going to a concert of this type, is that there are new pieces from these films,” Loh says. “For example, there are three pieces of ‘Stars Wars' music that are just released (for performance by orchestras), including Luke and Leia's theme and ‘Here They Come,' the attack of the Millennium Falcon, in the first ‘Star Wars' film.”

While the Pops will necessarily present excerpts, given the concerts' two-hour duration, Loh emphasizes that Williams' artistry takes advantage of the full length of the films.

“The way he uses the music to describe characters is similar to ways some opera composers might do, such as (German composer Richard) Wagner. He has themes for his characters, for Luke and Yoda, which provide for the audience a nonvisual, emotional way to connect with the characters,” Loh says. “Then he can present those characters in different ways, transformed, to connect with the audience and bring them closer to what's happening on screen.”

Williams and his music are no strangers to Heinz Hall. He was principal conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980-93 and led the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on six occasions from 1993 to 2011 — three weekends of Pops concerts and three special concerts.

He also conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony at classical subscription concerts in April 1997, when principal bassoon Nancy Goeres played his “Five Sacred Trees.” The symphony has played three other concert scores by Williams, starting with his Essay for Strings in 1966 with Andre Previn conducting. Principal flute Bernard Goldberg played Williams' Flute Concerto in May 1981, also with Previn. Principal horn William Caballero played the Horn Concerto in October 2009 with Leonard Slatkin.

Loh is impressed by the depth of Williams' commitment to the orchestra as an expressive medium.

“What's so amazing is, through many decades, he still likes to write for traditional orchestra because he knows it's capable of such a wide range, and shows it through his vast repertoire,” he says.

Williams feels privileged to write for full symphony orchestras.

“The music that our orchestras play consists of some of the greatest thinking, at least, until now, of the Western mind,” he said in 2011 when he led the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “The organization of sound throughout the centuries has given us this precious heritage. The mechanical success of people who have perfected these instruments, who can perform fantastic feats before our eyes and ears, is also a magnificent accomplishment. The combination of all of this and what all this music means to us creates an experience which, for listeners and players and with, perhaps, more drama for the conductor, is one of the most thrilling things one can do in life.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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