The New Jersey Festival Orchestra will tap into the unifying power of populist music with “John Williams and the Music of the Silver Screen,” March 18 at the Renaissance Church in Springfield. The symphonic pops concert features Williams’ iconic film scores and other classic motion picture music.
The programming plays to the strengths of the wide-ranging professional orchestra’s tradition of delving into pops performances. “We’re an orchestra for the people, so to speak,” says David Wroe, the orchestra’s music director, who will conduct the show.
Wroe has a knack for inspiring his audiences. He’s got an easygoing allure, worlds apart from the standoffish, pompous stereotype of the old school maestro. His appreciation and advancement of interdisciplinary programming crosses borders and bridges communities.
The Williams’ tribute is also a fundraiser for Imagine, a grief support center founded in 2011 by the late philanthropist Gerald Glasser. The nonprofit provides resources for families coping with loss in Westfield and the surrounding communities. The organization’s founding principal was that nobody should have to grieve alone.
Keith Hertell, president of NJ Festival Orchestra’s board of trustees, is the founding board chair of Imagine and sits on its leadership council. Both Glasser and Hertell have experienced the personal loss of a child.
“It’s an organization I’ve been a bit involved with and I’ve really seen it grow over the last 10 years,” Wroe says. “But it’s the first time we’ve collaborated with them.”
NJ Festival Orchestra will donate 100 percent of the ticket sales to Imagine.
“It’s an important mission and we want to do our bit in providing some ground support for them to continue their mission,” Wroe says. “So we’ve come together to celebrate the great work they do, in part as a fundraiser for them through what we believe is going to be a wonderful concert experience. We’d love to do more, and if it’s a great success, wouldn’t it be great for this to become an annual event?”
Williams, 91, has written some of Hollywood’s most beloved, well-known soundtracks, full of vivid melodies and catchy leitmotivs.
“John Williams’s music, of course, we know from ‘Jaws,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ the Indiana Jones films and a number of other great movies,” Wroe says. “These movies are in part memorable because of the extraordinary music he wrote for it, and we want to highlight some of these iconic sounds.”
Wroe will feature other film music composers to demonstrate that Williams was in the company of extraordinary colleagues, past and present. He mentions Max Steiner, the composer for “Gone With the Wind”; Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “The Alamo”; and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an Austrian classical composer recognized for his opera “Die Tote Stadt” as well as numerous famous Hollywood scores such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
“Williams comes from a long pedigree of great film composers that had one foot very much in the classical world. With the rise of the film industry, a lot of composers who might’ve otherwise continued to just compose classical music or operas jumped ship and became iconic composers of music of the silver screen.
“Those composers took the stylistic mantle from composers like Strauss and Mahler, and their movie music is epic and heroic. It’s larger than life! It was this new breed of symphonic composers who were populating the music for films in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and then John Williams continued with this epic, dramatic, heroic music which he forged to create the iconic sounds of his movies.”
Other film scores featured in the concert will include Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” from “Doctor Zhivago” and music from “Lawrence of Arabia,” and Alex North’s music from “Spartacus.”
Wroe has been the orchestra’s music director for 25 years. It was founded in 1983 as a fully professional symphonic ensemble called the Westfield Symphony Orchestra and the scope of activities was focused exclusively around town. In 2013 — in response to the challenges stemming from the 2007-08 financial crisis that hobbled arts organizations worldwide — Wroe ushered in a new era designed to cultivate a larger audience and secure future viability.
“Support for the arts has very much changed and the dynamic of a professional symphony orchestra has changed,” he says. “The environment has frankly become more difficult and less affordable for small towns. So we evolved. We morphed into a much more regional organization, which changed our activities and prompted a changing of our name.”
The orchestra — which mainly performs in Union, Middlesex and Morris counties — merged with other orchestras, enlarging its footprint. Depending on the program, it can now field up to 70 professional musicians for a symphonic ensemble or as few as 25 for a chamber orchestra.
Rebranding shook up programming to explore music across broad spectrums while maintaining the orchestra’s core appeal. The music is intended for everyone, and the variety allows Wroe to conduct all the types of music he’s passionate about.
“There’s been a seismic change with the orchestra over the last 20-25 years that I have been involved,” he says. “I would say my priority, at least over the last 10 years, has been artistic diversity: providing to constituents a contrasting, diverse set of programs that aren’t necessarily linked to each other, genre-wise.
“So for example … yes, we’re an orchestra that’s well equipped to perform the symphonic repertoire of the last 200 years, starting with Bach right up to Stravinsky and Mahler. However, you know, fine arts and classical music are acquired tastes, and what I’ve attempted to do, with the full support of the board of directors, is to make our offerings much more eclectic and broad-based to attract a wider audience. So that manifests itself as not being shy to present much lighter symphonic fare such as materials that, say, the Boston Pops would produce.
“So on the one end of the spectrum is traditional classical music like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. And on the other end, collaborations with ethnic arts and dance groups, or celebrating film music.”
Looking to the future, Wroe will seek ways to create a more vital concert experience.
“I have recognized that in the music world,” he says, “even in the acoustic arts and the listening arts, the 20th century has forced us all to be much more visual in consumption. Therefore, the visual spectacle … whether it be the performance of a classical symphony or a dramatized, fully staged opera, or a dance program, or collaboratives with screenings of movies with a live symphonic soundtrack … my priority is to evermore visualize the concert experience. And that’s done through technology, lighting, costuming, etc., and using technology and mixed media to bring alive visually the concert experience. It’s something I want to develop even more —a multi-dimensional sensory experience.”
Wroe came to Chicago from England in 1989 to earn his Master of Music degree at Northwestern University. He spent three years as assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra under music director Seiji Ozawa.
He has lived in New Jersey longer than anywhere else in his life and considers it his home. He settled in Westfield with his wife and raised two sons. One studies at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken and the other will attend as a freshman next year.
“I’ve continued to keep my involvement with the NJ Festival Orchestra and, in many ways, a large part of my heart is there,” he says. “So my heart and my home is very much considered in my and my wife’s minds as New Jersey.”
He has a deep appreciation for his New Jersey audiences and the state’s unique, complex qualities.
“It’s an incredibly diverse audience, as also the state is,” he says. “It’s a wonderful mix of people from all over the world. They are an enthusiastic group and I really find them quite loyal. And through all the very different types of programs we present — whether it’s Latino programs, Asian programs, through dance or music, or whether it be through more traditional classical formats — we’ve seemed to have touched the various diverse and dynamic communities that make up New Jersey. I’m proud to continue that work, and the different types of people who I meet through my work is an inspiration to me!”
The New Jersey Festival Orchestra performs at Renaissance Church in Springfield, March 18 at 7 p.m. Visit njfestivalorchestra.org.
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