Roanoke Symphony attracts crowd with John Williams music

It could be heard well beyond Jefferson Street. Wafting through downtown Roanoke on Sunday morning were familiar melodies that could immediately conjure up images of Darth Vader and E.T. to almost anyone who heard them.

“I could hear them practicing,” said Ed Taylor, who was walking downtown when he heard the music. “I knew some of the songs even though I couldn’t place them off the top of my head.”

The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra began practicing for its Sunday afternoon “Picnic at the Pops” concert in Elmwood Park Amphitheater about 10 a.m.

This year the symphony began its annual concert series with a performance of some of the most widely-recognized symphonic music around — the film scores of John Williams.

As a five-time Academy Award winner, Williams has written the music to some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters and has created some of the best-known tunes in all of film. He’s the creator of the ominous, two-note theme in the “Jaws” score, and he wrote the soundtrack to the first three Harry Potter films.

The orchestra performed several of Williams’ classics, beginning with the upbeat theme to the Indiana Jones film franchise and ending with the classic operatic score to “Star Wars.”

Sunday’s show was the first time the Roanoke Symphony had done an entire show dedicated to Williams’ music and it was also the first time they had a concert in Elmwood Park.

Conductor David Stewart Wiley said they played the movie themes for the broad appeal and familiarity of the music, hoping to attract a crowd.

The program did just that. More than 1,500 people poured into Elmwood Park on Sunday afternoon for the show, filling up the seating section and much of the lawn, which was free. Gray skies loomed over the show for most of the day, but this kept the temperatures low, and the typical August humidity failed to rise, which organizers say helped attendance immensely.

Dot Yancey, who said she has been volunteering with the symphony for years, also said having the show at Elmwood Park on such a nice day helps the concert series get exposure to people who might not have heard it before.

She said she could also hear the symphony practicing before the show began and could see it spark the interest of people nearby who could hear it.

“This is just heaven coming in here,” she said. “It’s so relaxing.”

The crowd and acoustics of playing in the park went so well that executive director David Crane said he wants to have the Roanoke Symphony perform there again.

No specific dates have been set, but he said it’s going to happen.

“We want to be known not just for the symphony, but for having great live music in Roanoke,” he said.

The symphony was joined by the band Plastic Musik, who use only plastic instruments called “boomwackers” to play their music. The show featured other well-known musical themes of classic films and shows, such as “Gone With the Wind,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Star Trek” and “Apollo 13.”

The most popular music with the crowd was Williams’ widely recognized soundtracks, like the melancholy theme of “Schindler’s List” and, of course, the well-known melodies of the “Star Wars” film franchise.

Wiley even went so far as to conduct the symphony with a lightsaber at certain points.

“[They’re] familiar film classics that people know,” Wiley said after the performance.

Both Wiley and Crane said playing in Elmwood Park was a fantastic experience. Because it was outside, and there was a very serious threat of rain, the organizers had to take certain precautions when setting up the equipment and had to make sure the music could be heard over the typical outside noises of a venue filled with people.

“[The Roanoke Symphony] is constantly trying to find new ways to be out in the community,” Wiley told the crowd as people continued to trickle in from the street.

The orchestra, which is made up of about 45 people, will have its next full show in October.