The Force is Strong with the Richmond Symphony

by | May 10, 2023 | COMMUNITY NEWS, FILM & TV, MUSIC

Royal fanfare and martial drums over a 20th Century Fox logo… A classic fairy tale opening line in silence, and then, BAM! – STAR WARS! The text recedes quickly and is replaced by scrolling prose setting up the epic adventure ahead. Brassy horns, violins, the drums! Its bluster spent after we’re all caught up on the plot, the camera pans down with curious, foreboding strings…

Anyone reading this just imagined one of the most well-known pieces of music in the galaxy. You may not have seen a Star Wars film since the originals back in the 70s and 80s. You might not like the movies. You can be completely uninterested in science fiction. But you definitely know that music.

This past weekend, the Richmond Symphony continued its tradition of marrying the screening of a Star Wars episode with a live performance of its score, and it was magnificent. Return of the Jedi was the feature, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of its 1983 release.

These films, this one in particular, have dominated the imaginations of entire generations. Their importance isn’t weighed in the same language as say, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, North by Northwest. Their importance is ranged with the cultural impact of rock and roll, hip-hop, and iphones. You’d be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker under 50 that doesn’t credit Star Wars as a major motivation in their career.

John Williams, arguably the greatest symphonic composer of the 20th century, exquisitely channeled optimism, heroism, danger, longing, love, and villainy through his scores. He amassed 53 Academy Award nominations during his career. 53! By comparison, Walt Disney garnered 59. Meryl Streep breaks the Acting record at 21. At 90 years old, his audience knows the next movement in his career will probably be a requiem, but his legacy will be defining the sound of cinematic romance and spectacle since 1975. The Star Wars scores will be the first works mentioned in his obituary. Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, JAWS – incomparable honorable mentions.

All of this brings us to the Altria Theatre on a Saturday night. One thing was certain. Everyone in this room had seen this film many times. The fanfare I described at the opening of this article and every note hence was played to precision – jarring when you have to remind yourself that you’re listening to a live performance, not the audiotrack of a 40-year-old recording. Throughout the film, your attention would shift involuntarily from the movie, to the orchestra, to the gleefully reactive audience, and then back to the film – much in the way an unattended autofocus camera whirrs between focal lengths. Each time your mind shifts between subjects, it thrills at the juxtaposition. I looked around often at the people around me. The room was full of grins. The type of smiles you don’t know you’re doing until someone points it out. Just pure happiness. That’s what these movies do. That’s what the Richmond Symphony Orchestra served up – unfiltered childlike wonder.

These movies were always meant to be consumed in public, and no others have taken advantage of collective delight as well. The cheers that went up when Boussh takes off their helmet to reveal Princess Leia in disguise was as goosebump-inducing as it was predictable. Vader throwing the Emperor down the pit on the Death Star? You would have thought no one saw it coming. But of course, the cheers that went up were for each other, a recognition and reminiscence of when we all witnessed Anakin’s redemption for the first time.

All in all, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra’s performance was flawless. The crowd’s enthusiasm was infectious. The Altria Theatre is still gorgeous. Chia Hsuan-Lin presided as Conductor with skill and grace. The joy in the hall was beautiful. I’ll be going again next year, even if it’s The Phantom Menace.

Right after I sent this article to the editor, Chia-Hsuan, the Conductor of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, returned my call for an interview. Stoked, I fanboy’ed at her for a while. It would be a crime not to include her impressions and comments on the performance, so you all get an extra credit part of this story to boot!

Overall, what’s the experience of conducting a Star Wars score? It’s so much a part of our general consciousness and it’s such a big, full, composition.

Chia-Hsuan:I am still on cloud nine after the exciting two performances. It is a massive score  for sure that contains so many unique themes played by so many instruments. The most challenging part of the performance, other than the technical challenge for musicians, is to line up the music with the imagery on the big screen and let the music tell the story at the same time. John Williams is one of the greatest composers of our time. The way he created these musical themes, orchestrated and assigned the different instruments is incredible. 

How much of conducting is formulaic, mathematic to the written score vs how much is being in the moment and feeling the music (the Force?) flow through you?

Chia Hsuan-Lin: That is a great question. Haha, there is definitely a balance and I love finding that balance. There are times we need to continue playing at a fast speed in order to synchronize with the fast paced chase or battle scenes, but there are moments when you can just let everyone really play and enjoy the blossoming of musical phrases. I do also have a personal screen with visual cues that gives me tools to hit the right cinematic beats en pointe. So there is a visual assist, but the feeling with such emotional scores has to hit as intended – that’s felt intuitively but balanced with performance precision. Knowing the pacing of the film well and balancing that with feeling the film is a challenge and a joy.

Where does Star Wars impact you?

Chia-Hsuan: I am very much drawn to its music. I love the sound of the score. I love how John WIlliams tells the story of the film with the music. The music really enhances the movie as only John Williams can.  Motifs waft in and out of the dialogue and the camera movements so well, and his musical language is in lock step with the emotion of the picture at all times. He changes the color of the melodic themes even with just the mere mentioning of a character. For instance, when C3PO is telling the story to the Ewoks, Darth Vader’s theme plays in a more childlike muppet version of the score. It just naturally drops down into this bedtime story arrangement, simpler but exquisite in its translation of the moment. It’s fascinating the depth of understanding and contribution to the story John Williams had for Star Wars.

Where do these scores fit in the larger landscape of operatic composition? La Boheme, Figaro, Swan Lake? I always thought of Peter And The Wolf – mainly because Disney put out a breakdown of the motifs for each character in their animated rendition of it. It was the first time I thought to break out musical motifs as character language. It really made me listen to symphonic music differently.

Chia-Hsuan: It’s a huuuge stagework. It paints with all the colors and themes as any of the operas/ballets you just mentioned. It’s no different from the legacy of opera. The techniques he uses to weave in all the character motifs is seamless and impressive. He will go down as one of the best in history. 

So, are we going to get one of the prequels next year? Phantom Menace?

Chia-Hsuan: I am excited to do more of these cinematic pairings with live orchestra for next season. We have not announced the film series for next year, but please be on the lookout on our website because we got two exciting titles coming, and this definitely is NOT the last Star Wars film we do.

*cough* Lord of the Rings *cough cough*

Chia-Hsuan: Oooo… that’s interesting…

More information on the Richmond Symphony can be found richmondsymphony.com
Give the Richmond Symphony a follow at @rvasymphony
All photos by Steven King @mindbend3r83

Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Richmond VA and his hometown Brooklyn, NY. He came up making punk ‘zines in high school and soon parlayed that into writing music reviews for alt weeklies. He moved on to comedic commentary and fast lifestyle pieces for Chew on This and RVA magazines. He hit the gas when becoming VICE magazine’s travel Publisher and kept up his globetrotting at Nowhere magazine, Bushwick Notebook, BUST magazine and Gungho Guides. He’s been published in Teen Vogue, Harpers, and New York magazine to name drop casually - no biggie. He maintains a prime directive of making an audience laugh at high-concept hijinks while pondering our silly existence. He can be reached at christianaarondetres@gmail.com




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