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Close Encounters of the Concert Kind

When can music composed for a film stand on its own? WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports on how John Williams’ suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind translates to the concert stage.

Tune in on Sunday, July 25th at 1 pm on WRTI 90.1, and Monday, July 26th at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2, as Stéphane Denève conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in a re-broadcast from 2015 featuring excerpts of the music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as music by Marcus Lindberg and Sergei Prokofiev.

There are two types of movie music, believes  Conductor Stéphane Denève, who served as Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor from 2013 to 2020. One is purely functional, serving only the film’s imagery and story. 

"The other type," he says, "is music that actually has so much structure, and so much flavor and substance, that actually it can live without the picture."

That, he says, is the case for John Williams’ score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  "He finds a way to really build a piece, which becomes a symphonic tone poem. And that’s why I think this piece, particularly, has a chance to have its own life without any images, without any reference."

While the music familiar to movie fans may bring to mind the story about contact with life from outer space, Denève says it can also conjure other ideas.

"I really feel that you can invent your own scenario, listening to it. You don’t need to know the film—of course if you do, it will help you have some images. But I think a great masterwork should have ambiguity and can have many meanings."

The music to Close Encounters of the Third Kind was nominated for an Academy Award for best original score in 1977. It lost to the music from Star Wars—also by John Williams.

Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about why he believes the music from 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' works so well on the concert stage.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.