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October 14, 2009
Star Wars: In Concert
Crowds at L.A. venue give stating ovations to John Williams' themes from the timeless Lucas film series by Jon Burlingame

LOS ANGELES—"Star Wars: In Concert" is a dream come true for fans of George Lucas' space-opera saga, and in particular John Williams' landmark scores for all six films.

An estimated 12,400 fans saw the multi-media event over two days last week at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and, based on the reaction at Thursday night's show, nobody went home disappointed.

John Williams is almost taken for granted these days as the architect of some of the world's best-known and best-loved orchestral music, and certainly Star Wars is among them. But what shouldn't be forgotten is the complexity of the challenge he faced in creating these six scores.

He started with the multi-themed, lavish orchestral fireworks of the 1977 original, which no one thought would make any money and was therefore a one-shot sci-fi spectacular. Williams – competing against himself that year with the equally brilliant Close Encounters of the Third Kind – won the Oscar for his score.

Lucas went on to complete his trilogy with The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), meaning Williams had to augment his original Star Wars themes with new ones and integrate the earlier material as dramatically appropriate. But when Lucas decided more than a decade later to make a prequel trilogy, Williams not only had to create still more material while – applying music he had written many years earlier – hint at events that were to come in the timeline of the Star Wars saga.

So The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) benefited from Williams' genius and, along the way, elevated Lucas' sometimes lackluster dramaturgy into the realm of indelible modern myth.

Anthony Daniels

Anthony Daniels

"Star Wars: In Concert" celebrates Williams' extraordinary accomplishment by placing the music front and center throughout a two-hour arena event that features a giant screen playing montages of memorable scenes from all six movies; and host Anthony Daniels (C-3P0 in all six films) tying 18 individual segments together with a narration that chronicles the history of the Empire, the Rebel Alliance and all the individual players that Star Wars fans have come to love.

The producing entity (Another Planet Touring in association with Lucasfilm Ltd.) has augmented the performance with lobby displays featuring Darth Vader, Chewbacca, Yoda, costumes and weaponry. And, of course, there are the wildly overpriced posters, programs ($30!) and T-shirts.

But when the lights dim and the THX and 20th Century-Fox logos play, the excitement in the room is palpable. The appearance of the words "Star Wars" to Williams' opening music brought cheers and applause that rocked the house. (Incidentally, the crowd was a remarkably diverse demographic, from youngsters wearing Star Wars apparel to grown men unaccountably wielding colored lightsabres to 70-somethings who seemed equally entranced.)

Belgian film composer Dirk Brosse conducted the 86-member orchestra and 60-voice choir, working with Williams' original scores and carefully monitoring a small screen in which the scenes had been "streamered" to help keep him in sync with the images being projected. Emmy-winning American composer Mark Watters will take over for most of the remaining shows in October and some in December.

The story is told in chronological order, so that the 46-minute first half features such musical high points as "Duel of the Fates" with its Sanskrit choral passages and "The Flag Parade" to shots of the pod race, both from The Phantom Menace; "Across the Stars," the stunning love theme for Padme and Anakin from Attack of the Clones; and "Battle of the Heroes" from Revenge of the Sith. The first half closes with the crowd-pleasing "Imperial March," Vader's theme from Empire and perhaps the most famous bad-guy theme of our time.

The 47-minute second half concentrates on music from Episodes IV, V and VI, with particularly touching visual montages to accompany "Princess Leia's Theme," "Yoda's Theme" and "Luke and Leia"; and bravura performances from the orchestra on such familiar pieces as "The Asteroid Field" and "The Forest Battle." Even the quirky "Cantina Band" from the first film is performed, and the rhythm section was clearly having fun with it. The now iconic "Throne Room and Finale" is accompanied by archival photographs of Williams conducting the original scores of all six films with the London Symphony Orchestra through the years.

Much of this is very difficult music, and the orchestra – drawn mostly from the professional pools of New York and Boston musicians, with a handful from L.A. – performed beautifully throughout the show.

This writer found the fire and laser effects pointless and distracting, but they are only a brief part of the show, mostly during the second act. What's important is that John Williams' thrilling music from Star Wars is being honored, and appreciated, in such an entertaining way. The crowd at L.A.'s Nokia Theatre expressed their approval with a pair of standing ovations.

©2009 Jon Burlingame
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