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John Williams conducts St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

John Williams conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

After an absence of more than 20 years, John Williams, the musical king of Hollywood, returned to Powell Hall on Friday night to share the podium with his longtime friend, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra music director Stéphane Denève. The two conducted an ambitious lineup of Williams’ film music performed by an enthusiastic orchestra to an even more enthusiastic sold-out crowd.

By the end of the night, the audience became ecstatic, cheering rock-concert style for Williams, his music and the orchestra.

Denève conducted the first half of the concert, punctuating the music with anecdotes about his relationship with Williams, who gave Denève carte blanche with the program. The orchestra seemed especially energetic from the start in its rendering of “Hooray for Hollywood,” a Richard A. Whiting tune arranged by Williams. The energy increased in both the orchestra and audience as the French horns sounded in tight unison the main theme to the second piece, “The Cowboys Overture.” Two pieces from “Jane Eyre” (“Reunion” and “To Lowood”) slowed the pace but not the passion of the orchestra. Beautiful solo work by Mark Sparks on flute and Allegra Lilly on harp set the appropriate romantic mood.

The “Symphonic Suite from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” rounded off the first half. Denève reminisced about the first time he saw the film. “I was 12,” he said, “but please don’t do the math.” Performed like a symphony, the suite features delicate dialogue between flute and harp with the addition of refined piccolo solo work by Ann Choomack. The end of the second movement, “Stargazers,” was particularly poignant as Denève and the orchestra added a finely controlled backdrop to Lilly’s solos-harp conclusion. The suite, and the first half, ended with the iconic “Flying Theme” from “E.T.” to the cheers of the audience.

John Williams conducts St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

John Williams conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Thunderous applause and a standing ovation greeted Williams as he took over for the second half of the program. He, too, shared anecdotes along the way. He called Denève a friend and said he was in St. Louis to “celebrate Stéphane Denève” and his new position with the SLSO. Williams called Powell Hall the “house of magic and wonder” and described the SLSO as one of the country’s “great artistic institutions.”

Williams boasts a career that spans over 50 years, having composed more than 100 film scores and concert pieces. Williams served as the principal conductor and artistic director of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993 and remains their conductor laureate. Considered a neo-Romantic “master of melody,” and “the king of grandiosity,” Williams is responsible for some of the most memorable film tunes in history, tunes that have earned him numerous accolades, including five Academy Awards, 24 Grammys and four Golden Globe awards.

The second half of the concert included even more of his work than the first half, starting with “Flight to Neverland” from “Hook.” As with many of his melodies, “Flight” evoked the emotional content of the film as listeners easily imagined Robin Williams’ flight to Neverland. “Dartmoor, 1912” from “War Horse” provided yet more solo flute opportunities, while “With Malice Toward None” from “Lincoln” gave the cello section a workout. Danny Lee’s contemplative opening cello solo provided a palpably reverent setting.

The horn section once again demonstrated lock-step precision as it announced the “Theme From Jurassic Park,” clearly a crowd-pleaser all the way through. “Star Wars” melodies dominated the rest of the concert. “The Adventures of Han” from “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “Rey’s Theme” from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Princess Leia’s Theme” from “Star Wars: A New Hope” preceded the “Main Title From Star Wars,” with its explosive start that ignited the audience like nothing else all evening.

Williams shared a story about “Princess Leia’s Theme” from the original Star Wars score. The melody was “meant to be a love theme,” he said; no one told him there was going to be a second film. “Two years later I learned they were brother and sister. I then had to write a different theme, quite different than this one.”

The night did not end there. After yet another standing ovation, Williams provided not one but three encores for the enthralled audience: “Yoda’s Theme” and “The Imperial March” from the “Star Wars Suite,” and “Raiders March” from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“This was fun!” Williams quipped. “It was worth the trip from California. … You have to be proud of this orchestra.”