For its Music of Star Wars concerts Friday and Saturday at Winspear, the ESO made a bold choice: the orchestra is playing those cosmically familiar scores in historical-chronological order, film by film.
In other words, we begin with Episode I’s Duel of the Fates, complete with the explosive outburst of a combined Kokopelli and Òran choir.
Seventeen songs later — after everything from The Imperial March to the Parade of Ewoks to Rey’s Theme — the finale is The Last Jedi’s The Rebellion is Reborn — taking us right up to the front door of The Rise of Skywalker.
Episode IX’s music is still top secret until Dec. 20, and thus unavailable; Ludwig Göransson’s new, rusty-ghost score to The Mandalorian was similarly elusive.
That said, the program happily includes music from the two Star Wars Story films: Rogue One and Solo. Michael Giacchino’s slow, sad piece from the former is the only composition here not written by the celebrated John Williams.
At the podium conducting is Robert Bernhardt, who also led The Music of Star Trek at the Winspear in March.
He considers his brushes with the Academy Award-winning Williams as career and life highlights. “Our paths crossed 30 years ago when he guest conducted my orchestra in Tucson. We’ve kept in touch, he invited me to the Boston Pops in ’92. So he’s been a friend and mentor over the years. I’m just about the luckiest guy you know.”
A frequent guest of the ESO, Bernhardt is Principal Pops Conductor of both Grand Rapids Symphony and Chattanooga Symphony and Opera.
Bernhardt was 26 when he first saw Star Wars in Hollywood, having just that month finished his degree in Instrumental Conducting at USC. “1977, I was in the theatre opening week. That brilliant B-flat major chord that opens the scroll … and then that first pass-over — not the Passover holiday,” he laughs, “the pass-over of the warship — was the first time an object felt its size and weight on screen.
“It was mind-blowing. There was applause before anything happened.”
Talking context, “The big one for us up to that point was Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in ’69, the way the music was used to propel the action, the Strauss waltz with a turning space station on the screen — the audacity of music and visuals being so completely melded, and nobody’s talking!
“Then it was George Lucas’ realization he was actually writing an opera. For Williams, Star Wars from ’77 to 2019 is a longer frame by over a decade than Wagner spent on his Ring Cycle.
“More than anyone else, he brought film music into our homes. He helped us remember why film music was great — for many decades it was shunned in the classical world as inferior. You can argue who is the greatest film composer in history, but I don’t think it can be argued who is the most important, for many reasons.
“This great man will be 88 in February and he is undimmed.”
Looking at Williams through a historical lens, Bernhardt says, “A lot of his gestures come out of the late Romantic tradition, that’s why people compare him to Tchaikovsky, maybe Rachmaninoff. I know that Elgar is one of his favourite composers. But John has an incredibly unique background because it’s also firmly jazz based, studying piano at Juilliard while playing in clubs.
“I’ll tell you, though, as far as a 50-year test is concerned, I have no doubt in my mind we will still be listening to John Williams — in that same breath we’ll all still be listening to Beethoven, as well as Brahms, Tchaikovsky.”
For the Winspear concerts, “you have to be very conscious of brass endurance. He’s very bold in his brass writing. When you have a studio orchestra hired in L.A., each of the four horns is the principal horn of a major orchestra! And they do them spotty — just three minutes at a time. They don’t have to play an entire evening’s program.
“So we’re very conscious of pacing, so that there’s not six huge pieces in a row. But that’s true for audience members, too. We can’t constantly be peaked — there has to be a sine curve of emotion.”
With ESO’s artistic administrator Rob McAleer, “We decided putting the most famous music in the middle of the concert was the way to go. And doing it this way, we get to open with Duel of the Fates, with the combined choir, and they’re so enthusiastic, so well prepared, and they so love being part of it, which makes it even more fun.”
Another of The Phantom Menace’s finer compositions we’ll hear is Anakin’s Theme — note especially the little hint of Imperial March at its tail. Bernhardt laughs, “Imagine being called up by Lucas in 1999: ‘Remember I called them IV, V and VI? Well, I’m doing three more!’ (Williams) was put in a position to pre-quote himself! In that theme, as you see, he’s got a troubled kid, and he foreshadows what’s going to happen with the music. I just find it brilliant.”
For the one number not by Williams, Jyn Erso & Hope Suite, Bernhardt notes, “I was prepared to not like Rogue One because it was an insert. But Giacchino really hit a home run.”
In it, concertmaster Rob Uchida will be playing piercing violin, Rafael Hoekman on the mournful principal cello. “They have that glorious duet. In that movie, what’s different: basically everybody dies, and there’s a true sense of pathos.”
Emotional recognition is a major key to Williams’ work. Notes Bernhardt, taking it back to opera, “There are characters who have themes, ideas that have themes — even the Force has a theme.”
When Carrie Fisher died in 2016, Princess Leia’s Theme arrived everywhere online, and it was obvious the bittersweet tune had come to represent not just the character, but the actor and her struggles. It’s not difficult to get emotional thinking about it.
“You’re absolutely correct,” says Bernhardt, “which is wild because whenever he talks about it now he says, ‘I was pretty sure this was going to be a one off.’ Who knew that there’d be 42 years and more than 10 films of it?”
Having earned his 50th Academy Award nomination for his Force Awakens score, The Rise of Skywalker is journey’s end for Williams. “I know what a Star Wars film does to him,” says his longtime friend. “No matter that the source material is his own, and a lot of those themes return — for every film he has to write around two and a half hours of music. When there are re-edits and reshoots like there were for Force Awakens and this one, he has to write three hours. And that’s in, what, two, three months?”
Just as George Lucas wrote his famous scripts, “And you know he does it all by hand, pencil and paper, right?”
And while Luke Skywalker — killed by the Force let’s remember — may assert, “No one’s ever really gone,” Bernhardt notes, “I just think at some point there needs to be a button put on this. And I think the ninth film as imagined is a perfect place to bring it to an end.”
But, he says, “It doesn’t make me sad. It makes me feel incredibly lucky to have experienced it all.”
The Music of Star Wars
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Winspear Centre
Tickets: $56 and up at winspearcentre.com
Note: A Young Jedi’s Guide — a special, shortened program — runs 2 p.m. Sunday, tickets starting at $25