A Birthday Caliversary with the LA Philharmonic

It has been one year since we moved to the Bay Area—a milestone we call our Caliversary. We celebrated in Los Angeles seeing the LA Philharmonic. Gustavo Dudamel conducted a concert of John Williams's music, and we were delighted to see John Williams come out on stage at the end to conduct “Happy Birthday" to Gustavo. Although we had originally purchased the tickets for Onur's birthday on November 29, the concert was on January 26—Gustavo's birthday—and weeks before my birthday on February 14. Believe it or not, John Williams’s birthday is February 8. It was a Happy Birthday Caliversary :)

I have been a fan of Gustavo’s for a long time, and first saw him conduct the New York Philharmonic in 2007. The music world was buzzing about his talent and his passion, particularly his efforts to be inclusive and foster music education for children. One of my favorite pieces he conducts is Marquez's Danzón No. 2.

After introducing Onur to this piece, which he loved, I had it in the back of my mind that it would be cool to see Gustavo conduct in person someday. When we moved to the Bay Area, I remembered he had taken up residence at the LA Philharmonic, only about a six-hour drive away. So when thinking about Onur’s birthday last year, I looked at the LA Phil's schedule and saw that Gustavo would be conducting a John Williams concert in January 2019. It seemed like a good choice, so I put it on my calendar to purchase tickets once the box office opened for the 2018/2019 season. We invited my parents, who are just a couple hours south in San Diego.

And that’s how it came to be. On Saturday, January 26, we all met late in the afternoon and had a delicious dinner at Kendall's Brasserie, just a block east of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Afterwards, we walked to BP Hall to listen to a 7:00 p.m. pre-concert talk the LA Phil calls Upbeat Live. It is free to ticket holders and was a fantastic and worthwhile accompaniment to the concert.

Dr. Laura Karpman talked about what made John Williams's music so special while her partner, a pianist, played musical examples. In essence, Williams’s brilliance is his ability to use musical motifs and intervals to bring characters and scenes to life. His genius is why we hear wheels of a bicycle turning in E.T., why we hear adventure and romance in the theme from Indiana Jones, why we hear child-like wonder and wizardry in Harry Potter, and why we hear battles and kingdoms in Star Wars.

In a 2009 interview with Jo Reed, John Williams says:

Another opportunity that we have in film also is to create melodic identifications with characters. A leitmotif technique from opera, if you like, centuries old, certainly works very well in film. So we can identify people aurally on and off the screen. We can suggest the presence of a character. We can sense Darth Vader’s approaching, because we hear his tune. And so these are parts of the toolbox of how we put together a soundtrack to a film that will illicit emotions and underscore them, suggest them, enhance them.

After the talk, we made our way to our seats in Terrace East. Looking down, we saw the familiar horseshoe arrangement of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. As a pianist, it was so cool to be able to see the piano below, and later to watch the pianist tackle the music. The pedestal Gustavo would conduct from was center front stage, near the audience. We watched as musicians and concert-goers filtered in.

Terrace East

A handful of minutes after 8:00 p.m., Gustavo took the stage to applause. Lifting his baton, the Olympic Fanfare and Theme rang out, with clips from the Olympics playing on the screen above. I can’t tell you how emotional and inspiring it was hearing the fanfare with Olympic athletes onscreen. Hearing the LA Philharmonic play in the Walt Disney Concert Hall was as if color and texture had been added to the music—as if we could feel the wavelengths of sound and timbre of the instruments moving through the space: It was that good.

Journalist Mark Swed writes in the LA Times:

The difference between hearing “Stars Wars” in a Dolby-inundated movie theater, or on TV, or (heaven forbid) on your phone, or in Disney Hall is as great as skimming through amateur Instagram nature photos and actually being in the woods.

And so we sat listening to themes that had punctuated our lives like birthdays. What I loved about the concert was that Gustavo did not rush through the music as some conductors do, as if picking up the pace was an apology for having to hear film music, or a statement that it did not deserve the attention to detail and mindfulness that concert music did. Gustavo was having none it. He and the LA Phil delivered a wholehearted performance. He held pauses in the music, such as right before the final piccolo solo (8:20 in the video below) in "Adventures on Earth" from E.T. The Extra -Terrestrial and in doing so, he held us.

After finishing the concert with selections from Star Wars, Gustavo led the orchestra in an encore piece, and then brought out John Williams. We watched as Williams received a standing ovation and took the podium to lead the orchestra and audience in a Williamsian arrangement of “Happy Birthday” for Gustavo.

I had no idea when I booked our tickets that our concert experience would be so memorable. We had begun our journey celebrating Onur's birthday, attended the concert on Gustavo's birthday, and pre-celebrated my birthday and John Williams’s birthday in February. We saw the uniformly excellent LA Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, and John Williams in person. I couldn’t help feeling a little like Elliott cycling past the moon, transported into a wondrous space, however brief.


John Williams was born on February 8, 1932 in Floral Park, New York. His prolific life as a composer includes movies like Jaws, Schindler’s List, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Hook, Jurassic Park, Memoirs of a Geisha, Star Wars, and three Harry Potter films.

Here’s a wonderful interview, also embedded below, from 2009 when Williams received a National Medal of Arts award. In the interview, he talks about his life as a studio pianist on films such as Some Like it Hot and To Kill a Mockingbird, and his transition into composing and conducting. From 1980-1993, Williams was the conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra, and currently holds the title Boston Pops Laureate Conductor. He has collaborated with Steven Spielberg for over 40 years, since Spielberg’s directorial debut, The Sugarland Express, in 1974. More here.