Review: Movie magic with ABS-CBN Philharmonic

Posted at 09/03/2012 6:10 PM | Updated as of 09/04/2012 12:46 PM
Stormtroopers shared the stage with the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra at the Meralco Theater on Sunday. Photo from the Facebook page of the Philippine Outpost 

MANILA, Philippines -- Concert-goers had the gut feeling that the best was saved for last because what they were most looking forward to was not listed in the evening’s musical program. They were right.

The theme from “Star Wars” is American composer John Williams’ pièce de résistance. So it was a wonder that one of the best recognizable film scores – loved by generations of movie fans the world over – was not in the lineup of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra’s debut concert, “The Magic of John Williams,” at the Meralco Theater on Sunday night.

But there they were – a squad of Imperial Stormtroopers who traveled from a galaxy far, far away at the theater lobby. Guests, young ones and young once, posed for pictures with them. Many were in elegant evening attire but all formality was forgotten and they smiled like little children at an amusement park.

It was a fun surprise for people who were expecting the usual prim and proper orchestra concert – and only apt. When conductor Gerard Salonga took on the job as musical director of the 40-piece ABS-CBN Philharmonic earlier this year, he made it his mission to “popularize symphonic music.” His message: orchestra concerts are not only for the “wealthy, educated, erudite few.”

So it was that the ABS-CBN Philharmonic’s debut sold-out concert was a treat more for movie lovers – fans of American director Steven Spielberg, in particular – than purists of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and other classical masters.

Salonga, who has conducted the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, did not hide the excited moviegoer in himself in explaining the music pieces to the audience who packed the 1,000-seat theater. He later revealed a Superman shirt underneath his evening jacket.

ABS-CBN Philharmonic’s tribute to Williams, 80, was in itself uncommon because film scorers, unlike directors, rarely get recognized. The five-time Academy Award winner scored for all but two of Spielbergs’ films (“The Color Purple” and “Duel”). It also helped that the movies that Williams scored became box office hits.

However, it was Williams’ genius in composing some of the most recognizable movie scores that has made him a towering figure in motion picture history.

The award nominations started pouring in 1967. Williams already had four Academy Awards in his resume by the time he scored the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. This year being an Olympic year, it felt proper for the ABS-CBN Philharmonic to begin last Sunday’s concert with the Olympic spirit.

Concertgoers who were born in the 1990s could only appreciate the beauty of Williams’ music, especially if they have never seen the earlier movies in which Williams made his mark.

Indeed, the first half hour was filled with music from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), something familiar for the younger generation. As the evening progressed, for those who were born much earlier, it was a stroll down memory lane.

The audience remembered how that great white shark terrorized a beach in “Jaws” (1976), how UFOs made contact in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), when a man of steel streaked across the sky in “Superman” (1978), when a whip-cracking archeologist raced against Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), and when an alien melted hearts in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982).

But the theater fell deafeningly silent during the four-minute violin solo of concert master Ralph Waldo Taylan, who played the haunting melody of “Schindler’s List” (1993), as if six million souls were crying out from that one instrument.

After the theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Salonga bowed and walked off the stage, and it seemed that the evening was over, the audience yelled for more: “Star Wars! Star Wars!” They weren’t going away without getting what they came for and they knew that Salonga had to be playing a prank.

He came back with a big smile on his face, saying that he also wanted it himself. It was a wise decision. A squad of Imperial Stormtroopers was lurking out of sight.

Most in the audience were just children – at least half of the musicians in the ABS-CBN Philharmonic weren’t even born – when “Star Wars” debuted in 1977, which was followed by “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “The Return of the Jedi” (1983).

Thanks to the prequels that revealed the origins of Darth Vader in “The Phantom Menace” (1999), “Attack of the Clones” (2002) and “Revenge of the Sith” (2005), later generations of moviegoers came to know the "Star Wars" theme.

Of course, aside from the main theme, not to be missed at the concert was the sinister imperial march that heralded Vader’s dark presence.

For the finale and to the delight of the crowd, Salonga called in onstage the troopers led by Vader himself, accompanied by the mercenary Boba Fett, a hooded Jedi knight and the ever-congenial droid C3P0.

The last piece was titled “The Throne Room,” in which Princess Leia in the 1977 movie conferred honors on Luke Skywalker and Han Solo for their crucial roles in defeating the evil Empire – for the moment.

It was a good ending, just like in the movies.