It’s incredible to think John Williams’ music is still finding its way into moviegoer ears, here in 2023. The legendary composer-conductor scored The Fablemans for his longtime film partner Stephen Spielberg in 2022. This year, Williams returned to the franchise that sealed his place in history as the greatest modern film composer: Indiana Jones.
No matter what people think of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (it’s good!), you cannot deny that its score is just as stunning as the one Williams originally brought to life 42 years ago for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Williams–who turned 91 earlier this year, and composed his first film score for 1958’s Daddy-O–is still the master of drawing emotion from viewers. Spielberg, whose relationship with the conductor goes back five decades, explained in a recent Forbes interview: “I’ve always said, I can always get the audience to the brink of crying, but Johnny’s music makes the tears fall.”
The Oregon Symphony has taken on Williams’ works frequently over the past few years, presenting evocative selections from the likes of Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and (of course) Star Wars. A few times a season, the symphony provides the live score for an entire film as it plays on a screen above—quite a feat if you stop to consider it. The 2019 presentation of Empire Strikes Back was particularly impressive. This fall, they’ll perform the score for Raiders along with the film, as part of the symphony’s Popcorn Series.
Conducting these performances is associate conductor Deanna Tham. She’s no stranger to conducting scores along to the films, having conducted the Raiders score in 2018 with the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra. And, as with any conductor from the last half a century, Tham knows what makes John Williams so brilliant and unique.
“We’re always being told what to expect by John Williams,” Tham told the Mercury. “His music has a lot of hero moves–this grandeur and strength and release of sound.”
These “hero moves” are referred to in symphonic terms as leitmotiv: recurring phrases of music attached to a character or situation in a film. Williams is the master of it. Look no further than the main theme from Jaws. Using only two notes, Williams created a powerful sense of dread. You know the shark is lurking beneath the dark water. And as the pace quickens, the shark moves closer—the tension heightens. Almost 50 years later, the refrain is still synonymous with impending danger.
Williams continued his brilliant use of leitmotiv in the Star Wars films, most effectively with the “Imperial March,” which pops up in various forms when Darth Vader and his space baddies enter the screen.
But let’s talk about Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark is Williams’ most diverse soundtrack—delivering playful bits, nods to the films that inspired Spielberg and George Lucas, and some of the darkest music in the composer’s oeuvre. Even without the movie rolling, the music is powerful and immersive.
It also best demonstrates Williams’ ability to bring us closer to the characters. We know when we hear the “Raiders March,” Indy is about to escape danger or—better yet—punch a Nazi. “Marion’s Theme” gently calls attention to Indy’s tough-as-nails partner Marion Ravenwood (played to perfection by Karen Allen). The softer piece is classically romantic, but it also snaps Jones from his drive for treasure and focuses him on what’s really at stake.
Williams’ best use of leitmotiv in Raiders occurs when he’s warning viewers about the divine power of the film’s McGuffin–the Ark of the Covenant. On the soundtrack itself, this is established on the track “The Map Room: Dawn,” opening with a sinister collage of woodwinds before building to a haunting chorus. It’s heavier and darker than most black metal. In the film, the piece is sprinkled throughout, offering us clues that things aren’t going to end well.
There are great standalone pieces in Raiders, too. The opening scene, as Jones makes his way to the booby-trapped Peruvian temple, employs silence and plucked strings. While the music during the truck chase scene—in which Indy is dragged behind a moving vehicle—moves… well, like a speeding truck.
Tham said the truck chase scene is the most challenging piece to perform. With a chuckle, she mentioned she’s not entirely convinced it wasn’t sped up in post. And while performing a score live with a film seems daunting, the orchestra and Tham use various cues—called punches and streamers—on small monitors to guide them through.
“The scariest part for me is, I don’t want the orchestra to be taken by surprise,” Tham said, adding that an orchestra is like a big machine that’s difficult to start again once it stops or slows.
But for Tham and the Oregon Symphony, these performances are becoming old (fedora) hat, as past ones have been impressive. In that time Tham has learned to tweak her approach. “It’s a vision larger than myself,” she explained. “It’s in service of another composer’s vision.”
Oregon Symphony, conducted by Deanna Tham, performs Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark in Concert at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, Sat Sept 23, 7 pm & Sun Sept 24, 2 pm, $46 - $138, all ages ν