National Symphony Orchestra: ‘The Music of John Williams’ at Wolf Trap

It was as good as it gets. A glorious DC area midsummer, low-humidity evening. There was a full house at the Filene Center; with demographically and generationally diverse picnickers filling the lawn at Wolf Trap after waiting in line patiently for the gates to open at 6:45 p.m.

Conductor Emile de Cou. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Conductor Emile de Cou. Photo by Scott Suchman.

We were all there to be part of what was a riveting National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performance under the sweeping, very personalized baton of Emil de Cou. The National Symphony Orchestra has performed summer events at Wolf Trap since 1971. Emil de Cou, who is the Music Director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the NSO Associate Conductor, has had 11 seasons with the NSO as Wolf Trap Festival Conductor.

The NSO performed highlights from composer John William’s gorgeous, iconic scores for films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lincoln, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Harry Potter, E.T., Superman and, of course, Star Wars.  There was also a musical tribute to the recently deceased John Horner, who composed the theme from the movie Titanic.

83 year old Williams’ scores which have led him to receive 5 Academy Awards, 17 Grammys, 3 Golden Globes, and 2 Emmys. Now that is quite a full mantle.

de Cou was a dapper presence in white dinner jacket as the NSO musicians were attired in summery white shirts/blouses and black slacks/skirts. de Cou used a sweeping baton motion and full body movements to guide the NSO throughout what was not only an aural performance but a most visual one as well. Nope, there were no movies actually playing, but this became a broad panorama of how an orchestra plays in such beautiful, tight unison. The bows all moving as one, the percussion instruments being struck in duets on the mark so that there was not a nano-second between them, the horns smoothly bringing one’s heart to soar.

The Williams composed music swept the audience into wonders as it ran from profound (Lincoln with its Americana-like fiddle solo), to excitingly evocative and alive (Raiders, Superman, and Star Wars), moving (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), sweet (E.T), fun (Home Alone) to the horror-filled (Jaws) and stampeding cattle of The Cowboys Overture. Each piece individually and all together illuminated what a film score can do for a movie audience. And, the Williams compositions also stand-alone without knowledge of a particular movie. One does not have to be a fan-boy of a particular movie or even know a movie at all to enjoy what was heard.

Adding to the evening’s unstuffy grandeur was the Washington Chorus led by Julian Wachner. The Chorus provided 22 female and male voices that added depth and nuance to the scores from Christmas Home Alone and Harry Potter.

Some cute moments toward the end of the evening’s performance included the appearance of two dozen or so members of the 501st Legion (Garrison Tyranus, Virginia Chapter) as Star Wars characters. The Legion is a volunteer organization formed for the purpose of bringing together costume enthusiast under a collective identity. A particularly lighthearted moment included NSO bassist and “good sport” Jeffrey Weisner having a laser sword fight with Darth Vader. The outcome was, of course, pre-ordained. And then there was conductor de Cou handing over his baton in exchange for Darth Vader’s light saber. What happened next? Well no fighting as Vader conducted the final minutes of the evening’s finale with elegance using de Cou’s baton. That got several huge applauses.

Composer John Williams. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.
Composer John Williams. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.

In his program notes, de Cou wrote that John Wiliams, “is unquestionably one of the greatest composers of our time”…known for his command of orchestral language [and] also a masterful choral composer.” The Wolf Trap evening left little doubts about that.

The impeccably performing NSO orchestra led by Emil de Cou and voices of the Washington Chorus gave a grand sweep of a midsummer night’s entertainment that carried 6,700 in the audience into a well-deserved standing ovation. And off we all went into the evening to find our way home, the stars twinkling, with us in happy talk.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

National Symphony Orchestra: The Music of John Williams was performed on Saturday, August 8, 2015, at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts– 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, VA. For future events, go to their performance calendar.

Notes: In his program notes, Mr. Cou mentioned some early John Williams television work as a pianist and composer for television. Often , often Willams’ work was jazzy for 1950’s-early 1960’s detective shows and darkly romantic for suspense programs.

Theme from Mr. Lucky:

Theme from Checkmate:

Theme From Kraft Suspense Theatre:

Final Note: Big tip-of-the-hat to Wolf Trap and the Park police for their guided some many cars to destinations beyond the parking lots. It’s not an easy accomplishment as there are always those heading out trying to make their own lanes and exits.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif


  1. As the Vader mentioned in the article, and on behalf of my friends in both the 501st and Rebel Legions (we had members of both Garrison Tyranus and Freedom Base there that evening) who were on stage with me this past Saturday, I want to thank you for that VERY complimentary writeup. We’ve had the honor of accompanying the NSO at Wolf Trap a few times now for tributes to John Williams, and it’s been a blast each and every time.

    Jeff was indeed a great sport about our little on-stage battle, and afterwards told me he regarded it as a highlight of his career. Again, I was honored to be able to participate, and was glad he had such a great time. For my own part, being able to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in front of a sold-out house at Wolf Trap – even if all I was really doing was keeping time with them – was one of those bucket-list experiences for me. That’s something I’m literally going to remember for the rest of my life, and I’m extraordinarily grateful to both Emil de Cou and the NSO for allowing me the opportunity.


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