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Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back – In Concert, May 2, 2024

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“Today will be a day long remembered. It has seen the death of Kenobi, and will soon see the end of the Rebellion.” – Darth Vader, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 1977.

It was on this pretext that the story of the second movie in the original Star Wars trilogy, Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, came alive at the Davies Symphony Hall on the night of Thursday, May 2, 2024. It was a well-packed event, maybe ninety percent full, on account of the fact it was a Thursday night and most people still have to work the next day, but there was no shortage of enthusiasm.

The moment guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos stepped onto the stage, a fervent round of applause ensued, and with the raise of the baton, he directed the San Francisco Symphony to a more clapping-inducing 20th Century Fox fanfare, in complete synchronization to the movie projection overhead. The anticipation was palpable. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Applause again. And more heavy applause at the rolling of the opening crawl. I haven’t seen a happier crowd in show of love for a movie in a long while.

Lucasfilm provided a complete movie with dialogs and all the effects sans the London Symphony Orchestra music score, and the SFS had its job cut out for it. I listened to various commercially available editions of the original soundtrack countless of times, and the focus of the live orchestra evening accorded appreciation of the full beauty and force of the orchestra in lieu of the heavily dialed down volumes of it as in the movie in service to the dialogs and special effects. And it was glorious and then some.

John Williams made regular use of piano and chorus in his scoring, in addition to a full orchestra complete with snare drum and bass drum and what have you, and the result is a packed orchestra on stage pushed to the brim, the fullest I’ve seen in ages but without the chorus. There was nil space between the violinists, cellists and a seven-feet fall over the edge, a fact made scarier with all the movements of the musicians. For a John Williams score of this explosive era of hyper creativity that spans Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978), The Empire Stikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the music playing was intense and full of dramas, and the small monitor in front of Kitsopoulos that playbacked the movie with sweeping, vertical lines indicating starting and ending notes determined the speed of the entire orchestra, giving rise to a musical storytelling the speed and intensity throughout the likes of which I’ve never seen in the concert hall.

True to the classical concert tradition, there was an intermission. At precisely 1:05:46 into the movie where the scene of a relaxed Yoda on Dagobah was about to give way to that of Vader’s Super Star Destroyer “the Executor” roaming in space, the move projection halted, the blank canvas reemerged, and the audience was treated to a one-minute, condensed, celebratory version of the “Imperial March” in place of the original five-seconds, short burst one in the movie. After the intermission, the second half of the concert began with the original scene with the Executor resumed but this time without the original music, and we were treated to the rarest of occasions where we get to hear the roaming noise of the colossus with its tremendous engines! It lasted two seconds, and it was arguably the most memorable two-seconds in a long time. For that moment created a completely new narrative that accords the audience a new perspective of the hunt for the Millennium Falcon. Not that I would ever want to experience the movie without the Williams score, but it was fun. Henceforth, I will play the movie exactly like I experienced in this concert, pausing it for a break, taking the view of the Executor in with its mesmerizing engines as long as I need, maybe just leaving it on the screen for half an hour, and then resuming the movie without sound for two lifechanging seconds. If only Lucasfilm would release another edition of the movie with a special layer that separates out the music…

The choice of the Episode V for concert is a most wondrous one, for this is the part of the entire three trilogies where the greatest romance of a generation takes place. And then there is the “I am your father” revelation that tops the Hollywood consensuses, as we are also introduced for the first time to a terrifying Sith Emperor Palpatine. The revised special effects of a stories-high hologram of Palpatine is eminently effective in conveyance of terror and oppression, not least the wonders of Star Wars technology. Episode IV, the movie before The Empire Strikes Back, arguably bears the best testament to Williams’ creative prowess, but it was in this second film of the original trilogy where the pace picked up, the Empire getting personal and turning its focus on the hunt for Skywalker, ensnared Solo and Leia making them suffer so as to entrap our hero.

It would’ve been nice had the stage been able to accommodate a full chorus, for the scene when Solo and crew approaches the Cloud City Bespin a most seemingly heavenly chorus supposedly accompanies them, one infused with a touch of otherworldly mystique and foreboding. It is something at a level I’d never experienced before in a movie, a sound further developed to new heights in Williams’ own composition titled, “The Map Room”, for Raiders of the Lost Ark the following year.

John Williams’ music is so original and ingenious as to represent at least 50% of the effectiveness of the storytelling efforts. Imagine your favorite non-Williams movies substituted with the energy and emotions of a Williams composition. What a world that would be. The Superman Main Title Theme, in particular and in essence, is a celebration of the American spirit of optimism and boldness of the most sublime degree.

I asked the person next to me if he was a Star Wars fan. “It is hard not to be.” So true.


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