Sean Wilson reviews the live concert performance of John Williams’ classic, Oscar-nominated score for Raiders of the Lost Ark…
Few live music experiences are more visceral than a symphony orchestra – and they didn’t come more electrifying than the sensational performance of John Williams’ seminal Raiders of the Lost Ark score at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Performed by the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the group’s founder Ludwig Wicki, the concert was a world first: as the Albert Hall website proudly proclaimed, this was the venue’s first-ever public airing of a complete John Williams score.
With the movie playing on a large screen suspended above the musicians (dialogue and sound effects intact, soundtrack muted), it all made for an intriguingly contradictory experience, given the audience’s attention was naturally split between the iconic visuals of Steven Spielberg’s classic movie and the arresting impact of the live musical symphony playing out in front of them. Although it wasn’t always seamless, dialogue sections and key effects in the movie occasionally being drowned out by the Albert Hall’s expansive acoustics, the musicians themselves never put a foot (or, rather, finger placement) wrong.
What the event reinforced above all is how beautifully Williams’ score is bound up with Spielberg’s vision. Seeing the robust live accompaniment to the likes of the boulder escape or the truck chase sequence only served to emphasise how much our collective memories rely extensively on Williams’ brilliantly judged input. It’s surely one of the best-scored movies in cinema history, and the 21st Century Symphony more than honoured the legendary composer’s breathtaking work.
From the off the audience was rapt with attention as Williams’ engrossing, multi-faceted tapestry played out in its entirety, everything from the familiar brassy restrains of the central Raiders March (carefully built up in heroic bursts across the score) to the tender, string-led romance of the love theme for Marion (Karen Allen). Most arresting of all was the modal, eerie majesty of Williams’ Ark theme, surely one of the most underrated in his canon and a piece that sublimely traverses the spiritual and the menacing. Its climactic explosion of cacophonous terror during the film’s notorious head-melting climax was as powerful as could be imagined.
It was also the little touches that proved utterly delightful: the mysterious oboe offshoot of the Ark theme in ‘The Medallion’, representing the treasure that ultimately helps lead to the relic’s resting place; the fiendishly complex woodwind runs of ‘The Basket Game’ during the famous Cairo marketplace sequence; and the tapping woodblocks of the movie’s pensive, shadowy opening in Peru. Under the baton of the terrifically spirited and animated Wicki, the 21st Century Symphony gave us a heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping interpretation that did justice both to the crowd-pleasing energy and sly nuances of Williams’ masterwork.
In fact, the only quibble that remained was a retrospective one: how on Earth did Williams’ awe-inspiring score lost to Vangelis and Chariots of Fire back in 1981?
Sean Wilson is a film reviewer, soundtrack enthusiast and avid tea drinker. If all three can be combined at the same time, all is good with the world.