A staggering team effort: Star Wars in concertReview
There’s definitely something operatic about watching Star Wars: A New Hope on a screen dangling from the ceiling of Roy Thomson Hall, its famous original score in the expert hands of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
The crowd, full of fans of all ages, shared a level of love and nostalgia for the work of John Williams and George Lucas that rivals opera fans’ loyalty to Verdi and Wagner. It’s true that there are fewer variables with in-concert film - certainly so compared to opera, where all of a production’s moving parts are happening live - but this audience also seemed less bothered by the bits that might have been unexpected: The subtitles ran throughout the film; the orchestra was sometimes too loud to clearly hear the dialogue; there was an intermission.
There are few tunes more beloved among contemporary culture than the ones Williams wrote for Star Wars, and that familiarity is an invaluable stepping stone on the way to appreciating the prowess of the TSO.
It’s all stuff that, maybe for the most hardcore cinephile and Star Wars lunatic, might have detracted from the experience. I certainly exercised a bit of will-power in my attempts to ignore the subtitles (except when they came in handy in the moments of acoustic imbalance), and at the end, when it became clear that we should indeed sit through the full credits - because John Williams - I suppressed an urge to do what I do at the movie theatre, which is not sit through the credits.
It was refreshing to note the differences in this crowd from the usual audience that attends the TSO’s mainstage symphonic fare. There were a few costumes floating around the lobby - Darth Vader, a small wookiee, a nondescript Jedi - and there was a general air of fun. Conductor Sarah Hicks, whose résumé of Pops concerts is enormous and includes regular spots at the Hollywood Bowl and concerts with Smokey Robinson, appeared onstage holding a green lightsaber, “The best Amazon purchase I have ever made.”
All this fun is put up against the seriousness that makes Star Wars a piece of nostalgia that spans generations. John Williams makes many nods to centuries past in his celebrated Star Wars score: the beefed-up orchestra à-la-Mahler; the sweeping lines of Puccini, the leitmotifs of Wagner. George Lucas pulls from the old stories of heroes, mythology, and good-versus-evil - the same source materials that gave us Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Handel’s operas about Roman Emperors, and Harry Potter.
The result, at least for me, was getting swept up in it all. My eyes wandered between the screen, the members of the orchestra, and Hicks at the podium, and I took the chance to marvel at how, just like my beloved opera, making these films was a staggering team effort.
I often wonder what organizations like the TSO, and its musicians, think of their Pops series.
I often wonder what organizations like the TSO, and its musicians, think of their Pops series. Among some inner circles of classical music, Pops concerts are less serious, maybe even less important, than their concerts of Shostakovich and Strauss. The Star Wars score isn’t easy, but it has that same giggle-inducing effect as the Anvil Chorus from Il trovatore, the Toreador song from Carmen, and the Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre - any time classical musicians play something wildly famous.
I hope the TSO has fun onstage, because these in-concert films - a series that continues this year with Casablanca (February 15-16), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (March 20-23), and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (October 2-5) - make a big dent in the Orchestra’s ongoing mission to be a cultural symbol of Toronto. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what convinces someone to start attending classical music events, and maybe the TSO’s film series isn’t even meant to woo newcomers and turn them into season subscribers.
But it certainly can’t hurt to have said newcomers come to Roy Thomson Hall, realize that the space is indeed not reserved for the “elite” concertgoer. And certainly, every seasoned symphony attendee knows the thrill of hearing music they know and love - their favourite Beethoven symphony, say - played live; there are few tunes more beloved among contemporary culture than the ones Williams wrote for Star Wars, and that familiarity is an invaluable stepping stone on the way to appreciating the prowess of the TSO.