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Review: Pittsburgh Pops' cinematic performance honors music of John Williams

| Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, 7:18 a.m.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Pops got off to a roaring start Jan. 23 when resident conductor Lawrence Loh led an exciting tribute to the music of John Williams.

That the orchestra came to play was evident from the start in the Olympic Fanfare and Theme, composed for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The bold and controlled brass playing was thrilling to hear.

The entire orchestra was in top form throughout the concert. Given how well Williams employs the orchestra, this is a program no Pops lover should miss.

Loh conducted the Olympic Fanfare wearing a Sochi Olympics scarf, the first (and least) of several costume changes during the show.

But it is his enthusiasm for Williams' music and the films for which it was written that is Loh's great strength in this program. A fan's enthusiasm drives his performances in broad strokes and details and fills his speaking to the audience with irresistible appeal. He used no cue cards. One felt he could speak at filibuster length on Williams' music.

The remainder of the first half was devoted to Williams' collaborations with Steven Spielberg. Sound effects provided the transition from Loh's verbal introduction to the theme from “Jaws,” which featured a lovely lyrical horn solo. Loh also led an appealing set of excerpts from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” though the most musically impressive part of that score — the alien ship riffing on the five-note theme heard throughout the film, often with hand signals — was never heard in the concert.

Two less widely known examples of Williams' music added greatly to the program. “A Prayer for Peace” from “Munich” is emotionally direct music that was beautifully played by the strings. “Dartmoor, 1912” from “War Horse” is in a lovely English pastoral style and featured a solo filled with fantasy by flutist Lorna McGhee.

The second half of the concert at Heinz Hall opened with music from the “Harry Potter” films, with celesta and harp crystal clear in their contributions to the magical atmosphere.

“Fluffy and his Harp” from “Sorcerer's Stone,” Fluffy being the three-headed dog lulled to sleep, featured Gretchen van Hoesen's exquisite harp and James Rodgers' colorful and characterful contrabassoon.

Music from the “Star Wars” films concluded the concert. When Loh left the stage for a costume change after starting “The Imperial March,” the orchestra continued without him — and without losing any pace or impact.

The concert concluded with three “Star Wars” selections just being released for concert performance. Loh said Williams, in view of his long-standing friendship with the Pittsburgh Symphony, let this weekend's performances be the concert premieres of “Here They Come,” “Luke and Leia” and “The Forest Battle.”

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Jan. 25 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $21 to $99. Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org

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

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