Friday Night Classics: Star Wars – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Michael Seal

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

One can’t help wondering if John Williams realised how big the Star Wars behemoth was to be when approached by George Lucas to score the original 1977 film. We do know that Lucas was clear in his brief that, although the film was to be a space opera, fantastic in scope, he wanted traditional film music, no ‘futuristic clichéd outer-space noises’ (according to Williams). And so the stirring Star Wars theme, using the full might of the London Symphony Orchestra was unleashed, becoming one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable pieces of film music ever, with the film’s score winning that year’s Oscar for Best Original Score.

Central to the scores is Williams’ use of leitmotifs – phrases used to symbolise a character that can be developed as necessary and that that can hook the audience in. Many of the pieces in this evening’s celebration include such leitmotifs in character themes like Anakin’s Theme (that also includes hints from The Imperial March to foreshadow his fall) or that for Princess Leia.

While there may be some inconsistencies between the films in terms of the themes and leitmotifs used, almost inevitably generated by the way they have been made out of order with each film scored independently, it’s clear there are familial resemblances between the scores – Williams’ use of brass, strings and a whole range of percussion being notable features. There is a number of stirring marches representing the rise of the various factions, but also light and shade as more pastoral and introspective pieces also appear, for example, Princess Leia’s theme, albeit with an undercurrent of the strength she will display.

This evening’s concert, produced by Tommy Pearson and conducted by the ebullient Michael Seal, takes the film’s broadly in their ‘chronological’ order (as opposed to the order in which they were made and released and once the 20th Century Fox Fanfare and main theme have been played) from Episode 1: The Phantom Menace to Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Pearson has written a script, recorded in cinema trailer style by Sam Douglas, that tells some of the over-arching story and introduces the individual pieces – an effective technique that sets the pieces in the context of the Star Wars universe, even if some of the spontaneity typical of Friday Night Classics performances is missing as a result. The good humour of the players of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) is, however, clear after the interval. Players really let their hair down (except for some who’ve put it up in Princess Leia dos) as they return resplendent in fancy dress, including a rather bulky and awkward Jabba the Hutt and a few evil-looking Darth Mauls mainly in the percussion section.

Williams’ music is in turns majestic and regal, delicate or quirky. The Cantina Band with its slightly surreal upbeat jazzy notes is the perfect counterpoint to the martial elements, and, of course, played superbly. Indeed, the whole evening is an object lesson in the filling of Symphony Hall – already full to bursting point with music and film fans sporting Star Wars T-shirts and light sabres – with rich and layered sound. We have cascading strings, strident brass, mellow horns and woodwind and tinkling flutes. The various sections of the CBSO blend into the harmonious whole with never a beat or note missed. The CBSO Chorus provides rich choral notes adding grandeur and a tangible sense of foreboding in, for example,Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace.

Overall, an evening of splendid music splendidly played, showcasing both the talents of the CBSO and of Williams himself in making the old forever new.

Reviewed on 3 November 2017 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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