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Close Encounters of A Third Kind In Concert – Event Review

Score composed by John Williams
Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and English Chamber Choir
Conducted by Ernst Van Tiel

Before Steven Spielberg introduced us to friendly aliens in his film ET, he was spinning a cinematic tale of extraterrestrials that were a lot more perplexing with his film, Close Encounters of A Third Kind. Last week the Royal Albert Hall held the European premiere of the live concert and film, forty years after it first aired in UK cinemas in 1978.

Close Encounters of A Third Kind is now considered to be a classic sci-fi film filled with wide shots of stars in the night sky and a scenic earth so well drawn and believable that contact with extraterrestrials seems like a real historical event rather than fiction. Even the years of developments in technology have not aged the film too drastically. The effects, having been remastered but not enhanced with modern day CGI, are still as brilliant as they were in the seventies. There is a hazy dreamlike quality to the UFOs. They are like blurry Christmas lights smoothly sailing about in a dark sky and a joy to watch on the big screen.

Many viewers would have first seen Close Encounters as children, but really the film should be watched as an adult. To fully grasp the enormity of the quest of every-man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) to understand the strange and paranormal events that he has experienced, a viewer needs to be able to look beyond the bright lights of the UFOs and see the anxiety and stress that results after such an encounter. The close encounters are simultaneously filled with awe and terror. The film gives the overarching sense of a more advanced and superior life-form meddling in the little lives of everyday humans, exposing them to experiences they can’t explain and instilling in them impulses they can’t control. Some moments of the film are very sad, some are frightening and others are wryly funny. It is a testament to Spielberg’s talent that the film manages to walk the line between all of these competing moods without ever seeming disjointed and while also maintaining the feeling of wonder at the cosmos.

The score to Close Encounters was composed by the prolific and widely known composer John Williams. His film scores are so memorable that you can hum one of his themes right after you leave the cinema and you’ll probably still be humming it years later. The score is filled with deep horns and low voices from the choir which conveys a sense of fear and peril in the first half of the film. In the latter half of the film the tune becomes otherworldly in places with soaring violins, sudden high notes played on percussion instruments such as the xylophone and chimes and again the soft sweep of voices from the choir. When the important Devils Tower Mountain appears on a TV screen the music is reminiscent of a bewildering melody from an old science fiction TV series in which something truly strange is being revealed.

The experience of seeing the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra play live along with the film was magical. The second half is really when the orchestra gets the chance to shine, with the main theme of the score emerging in a tune of five tones. The notes are used by the aliens to communicate with humans and are repeated again and again in the latter half of the film. Along with the strains of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star,’ the five notes flow in and out of the triumphant final credits to a score that is filled with both horror and wonder.

One of the benefits of going to a live concert and film showing is the audience. Allowed to perhaps be a little more reactive than a regular cinema going audience, there were gasps and laughter during some scenes. The audience was a mix of all ages, some people saw the film in the cinema when it was first released and others are young enough to have watched it on TV during childhood. As the concert ended the crowds of audience members mixed with musicians from the orchestra spilled out in to the brightly lit London streets. As everyone made their way home, stray humming of the five extraterrestrial tones could be heard in multiple voices among the crowd.

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