The John Williams Prom was not just a celebration of his work but a veritable blockbuster. This worked for the hard-nosed John Williams promenaders (and a smattering of new, keen kids) but as a conglomeration the pieces began to blend. JFK which opened the second half sounded amazingly similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark while The Witches of Eastwick morphed into Harry Potter…  Slicing off a couple of pieces either side of the interval would have packed a greater punch, and saved weary musicians from minor slips toward the end.

Keith Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra © BBC | Mark Allan
Keith Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

But it was thrilling to really hear this music brilliantly played and conducted without any filmic distractions (there was some cleverly designed lighting which served as a back-drop to each piece – bubbles for Jaws filmed from underwater with sunlight shining through……).  This is a hallmark of the John Williams’ genius in that he writes the music from the shark’s point of view or in the case of War Horse, from the horse’s, and it was much more apparent and poignant when the music stood alone. 

While Williams’ scores are instantly recognisable, it was interesting to hear full versions of his pieces which in turn allowed the beauty of his music to shine through, but were always in keeping with the film. Having never seen E.T., I longed for the cascading phrases to elaborate (but I don’t think that’s what E.T. was about). The Jaws soundtrack, with the marching strings backed by insistent brass, became unbearably intense, and warranted a quick check under my seat.

The presenter Katie Derham did an admirable job (bar changing her dress in the middle to become more Star Wars-like apparently), announcing that John Williams, now 85, couldn’t be there but had sent a message “I send my fondest regards to everyone in the Royal Albert Hall and a joyous evening of music.” She then introduced the conductor Keith Lockhart, a long-term friend and colleague of Williams who quoted him saying “I’m just the guy who puts the dots on the paper – it means nothing.” Lockhart’s close link to Williams through the Boston Bops Orchestra means he has an innate understanding of his music and how to cope with the varying tempos to which, on the whole, the BBC Concert Orchestra responded to sublimely.

From the very first bars of Raiders of the Lost Ark, images of Harrison Ford cornered by a cobra, and in the slow movement, candle-lit dining with the gorgeous Karen Allen, flooded back. They made music together, guided by the perceptive hand of Keith Lockhart and always kept the balance – clashing symbols never overwhelmed the strings. The Jaws soundtrack, with the marching strings backed by insistent brass, became unbearably intense.

Saxophonist Jess Gillam performs <i>Escapade No. 3</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Saxophonist Jess Gillam performs Escapade No. 3
© BBC | Mark Allan

A revelation came in the first encore when they played the Cantina theme from the first Star Wars film. This has a big band sound, complete with a wolfing whistler, which the orchestra achieved effortlessly (watch out John Wilson). 

Another highlight was the Haringey Vox and Music Centre London who sang Amistad – Dry Your Tears, Afrika, and created a real African sound. Accompanied by a drum, the authenticity of this worked perfectly. 

Memoirs of a Geisha, The Terminal – The Tale of Viktor Navorksi, and Catch Me if You Can also feature solo parts for cello, clarinet and saxophone which were played by the talented young artists Jamal Aliyev, Annelien Van Wauwe and Jess Gillam. Van Waure especially captured the comedy of the piece and played her clarinet rhythmically and cheekily. Aliyev played the cello with grave tenderness. 

Despite some earlier gripes, the evening was a treat-filled trip down movie lane due to John Williams’ ingenious scoring and Lockhart and his orchestra playing with such aplomb and conviction – it was also a voyage of discovery. I never knew Harry Potter sounded so balletic, almost Tchaikovsky, or that Star Wars was billed as the space opera, in Lockhart’s words “John’s equivalent of the Ring Cycle”. May the force be with him.