The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra accompanied "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone," starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, at Radio City Music Hall last weekend. (Photo copyright Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
In arguably the most genuine display of directorial modesty since Orson Welles shared his “Citizen Kane” credit page with his cinematographer, Steven Spielberg last year said: “Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes.”
This came to mind while watching the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra play Williams score for the first “Harry Potter” movie this past weekend, accompanying the full film at Radio City Music Hall under the baton of Justin Freer.
As they showed at a similar concert event in 2015 –performing Alan Silvestri’s score for “Back To The Future” — the NJSO is a solid movie soundtrack band. Their string section is arguably their strongest component, and strings are the heart of the classic Hollywood sound — of which Williams is one of the acknowledged masters.
On Friday night, the Jersey players were in fine form, but special mention must be given to the NJSO’s harpist, Tomina Parvanova, who made the harp solo (in the scene where a magical harp plays itself, in order to put a giant, three-headed dog to sleep) come beautifully alive. (The concert was repeated again on Saturday night.)
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” features Williams’ music almost wall-to-wall throughout the whole film, but his Potter themes are not as iconic as his leitmotifs for other blockbusters. The harp scene is an exception though, as the music becomes more than underscore. Parvanova’s playing elegantly showed how deftly Williams makes the harp a brief, but standout character, without breaking the mood or style of the film as a whole.
The audience was filled with Potter fanatics, as the crowd called out lines and cheered loudly for many scenes and catchphrases. The digital projection was clear, though the light from the musicians’ music stands did make some of the film’s night scenes look a bit murky. From my seat in the front orchestra, Freer’s balances made the music sound slightly overpowering at times, but since the film was subtitled (and really, it’s not the dialogue that matters in the Potter films, it’s the effects), the overall experience was not unpleasant.
The NJSO is currently finding its voice during this first season under their new Artistic Director, Xian Zhang. These Potter performances — the symphony will also perform the score to the second film in the series, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” in October — are at once a reminder of their musical skills as well as a showcase of their potential.
That potential still needs to be focused with a clear vision, something that Williams provides in his score for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It’s certainly not his most rousing soundtrack; but watching it on Friday night, it seemed as if it might be one of his most effective. Scenes like the Quidditch match would be a mess were it not for Williams’ clear underscoring to give them shape. The NJSO and Freer’s articulate conducting make Spielberg’s words seem true indeed — John Williams is a major part of what has made the Harry Potter film franchise fly.
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in Concert
March 31, Radio City Musical Hall in New York