Score composed by John Williams
Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Ludwig Wicki
Music has been the hand-in-hand partner of film since cinema began, certainly long before studios were able to synchronise dialogue to match their magical moving images. Even something as humble as lone pianist seated at the front of an auditorium is enough to enhance what we see; to raise the tension, to pull on the heart-strings, to make us laugh before a punchline has even landed. Music underscores film, literally as well as metaphorically.
Yet over the decades, relatively few musical accompaniments have achieved the status of their best-known visual guardians. But occasionally a soundtrack comes along whose cues become as iconic as the characters they usher onto the screen, whose tracks become as familiar as classic posters and publicity shots of film stars. And if a list was compiled of standout scores which fit that bill, you can bet that the name of composer/conductor John Williams would appear on it more than once.
In March 1977, Williams assembled the 84-piece London Symphony Orchestra at Anvil Studios, Buckinghamshire. Together they recorded the Academy Award-winning soundtrack to George Lucas’ Star Wars. Legends were forged in ’77. 41 years later, the LSO reconvenes 17-or-so miles away at London’s Royal Albert Hall under the auspices of conductor Ludwig Wicki, for a series of special screenings of that original film. While the audience watches adventure unfurl in front of them, a live orchestral performance takes place on the stage beneath. The cinematic circle is now complete.
This is Star Wars: In Concert.
The capacity audience quietens and the house lights lower. While nothing can be heard over the live reproduction of Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox fanfare, what’s even more powerful is the feeling in the air of goosebumps raising on 5,000 pairs of arms. A brief round of applause erupts while the blue-on-black title card sets the galactic scene, then we’re off. Whereas the promotional material and programme are graced with Drew Struzan’s 1997 Star Wars Special Edition artwork, the version of the film which plays is the 2011 Blu-ray cut, for optimum picture quality.
And what an amazing ride this is. Star Wars in its purest form, yet wholly unique. But beneath the novelty of of this cinematic/concert duality lies the clinical co-ordination which makes it work as a package. Soundtracks are recorded over weeks, not hours, and are rarely designed to be played live in continuous succession. A musician’s precision is as important as their stamina, here. This concert has to ‘run to time’ and dovetail perfectly with the events on screen. No drift is permissible, neither fast nor slow. As noted above, John Williams’ cues are characters in themselves, and need to enter and exit the stage right on time, just like the actors.
This is where Wicki comes in, expertly co-ordinating the huge ensemble, being their anchor yet driving them forward. Gathering all safely together as we head for the Battle of Yavin IV, to restore freedom to the galaxy.
And because this isn’t a regular track-by-track performance, there are no real gaps for the audience to applaud again until the end of the first half, the beginning of the second and the closing credits. The show comes with an interval once the Millennium Falcon docks in the Death Star, a chance for the audience to reflect on their experience so far and the players to take a proper break (re. the earlier point about stamina).
As with any finalised production, the other craft to admire is the mixing. Although the soundtrack appears at the same moments and with the same levels of intensity as the version of the movie we all know, great care is taken to preserve the balance between the pre-recorded film audio and the live music. As was John Williams’ original intention, the orchestra are here to enhance the film, not overpower it. Anyone watching Star Wars for the first time in this setting would enjoy it for all the same reasons, cinematically.
The only parts of the score not covered live are the two diegetic tracks played inside Chalmun’s Cantina by Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes. It’s unclear whether this is because the instruments required for the calypso/jazz fusion aren’t part of the standard orchestral setup, or just because the volume and structure of this music changes frequently as crucial dialogue is layered over the top. Either way, it’s a chance for the performers to take a short breather before the action resumes (and in the case of the brass section, for some members to cheekily crane their necks and watch five minutes of the movie).
What’s perhaps most surprising is how many short stretches of the film – many with key moments – feature no music at all, relying instead on dialogue and Ben Burtt’s array of immersive sound effects, as all motion ceases from the orchestra but for the turning of pages.
An extra frisson of excitement comes from seeing the string players ready their bows toward the end of a quiet scene, or watching the light from the screen catch the brass instruments as they’re raised into position.
The most challenging part is not getting caught up in the film then forgetting that this is first and foremost a concert. Because in the thick of battle, whether it’s the dust and grit of Tatooine or the echoing hallways of an armoured space station, the intrinsic link between the story, atmosphere and score is indistinguishable from ‘the real thing’. Because this is the real thing.
From start to finish, Ludwig doesn’t speak to the audience. He doesn’t need to. He and the LSO speak for themselves, and for John Williams, in their own collective and distinctive voice.
Star Wars: In Concert is a triumph on artistic, emotional and technical levels. If you have the means, if you get the opportunity, this production comes with no higher recommendation…
A note on etiquette: you may not be au fait with classical music concerts (and that’s absolutely fine, your humble correspondent isn’t either), but even patrons who acknowledge the on-screen reminder before the show to fully appreciate the performance by staying until the very end, should be aware that it’s also rather poor form to head for the exit while the orchestra are still taking their bows. When the band leave the stage, then you can be on your way. It’s just good manners.
Star Wars: In Concert played at the Royal Albert Hall, 16-18 November 2018, and will tour the UK and Ireland during November and December calling at Liverpool, Bournemouth, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Dublin, Leeds and Glasgow. For more information, visit the Disney UK website.