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Monday, October 9, 2017

Concert Review: Saving the Galaxy (and the franchise)

The New York Philharmonic ends its Star Wars marathon. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Adam Driver as the villainous Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Image © 2015 The Walt Disney Corporation used for promotional purposes only.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII to fans) hit movie theaters in 2015, the franchise's fanbase had a right to be nervous. Would this new film, produced by Disney and set 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi bring the Force back into balance? Or would it be another dark, turgid history lesson in the vein of the murky "Prequel Trilogy?" Happily, Force Awakens is the former, and the New York Philharmonic paid tribute to the next generation of Jedi with Saturday night's concert, the second of two complete performances of the John Williams score and the last in the orchestra's four-film cycle of Star Wars performances.

Going all-out for Star Wars fans is a smart move by this orchestra, encouraging the association between quality orchestral playing and hopefully, building a badly needed new audience from those who come to these concerts. On Saturday night, David Geffen Hall was abuzz with rolling R2D2 droids and menacing Storm Troopers. Costumed actors dressed as Darth Vader, Darth Maul and this film's villain Kylo Ren posed for pictures against the majestic background of Lincoln Center. And the orchestra was on point, tearing into this still-new score with what sounded like genuine and joyful music-making under the baton of David Newman.

Mr. Williams took a fresh approach to Star Wars in this music. Here, he is writing for a new generation of moviegoers as well as a new generation of characters, each of which demand their own set of leitmotivs. Familiar characters (Han, Leia, Chewie etc.) show up on cue (with their own themes intact) but this score is more expansive and innovative, kind of like the difference between Wagner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. As with that composer, keyboards are heavily featured, with the heroine Rey's theme indicated by sustained piano chords before the rest of the orchestra picks it up.

Just as the story relies on familiar Star Wars concepts, this score too has its share of familiar gestures. Heavy brass chords that announce the arrival of Kylo Ren, the masked "Master of the Knights of Ren" who is this film's conflicted villain. (Unlike the stoic Darth Vader, who would crush the throats of his inferiors, Kylo takes his frustrations out by slashing comm panels with his cross-shaped lightsaber.) However the neo-Nazi-like First Order goons are never granted the dignity of the Imperial March. They don't really deserve it.

Opposing them and led by Leia are the Resistance, who have their own surging, plucky theme in the brass and strings. This is used to great effect in the movie's central battle sequence as an X-Wing squadron led by pilot Poe Dameron saves most of our heroes from capture by the First Order. The music is in familiar Star Wars mode here but the new melodic material makes this an exciting and innovative score. David Newman and his expanded forces (the orchestra seems to be twice the size of that used to play the original film) had a field day with this music, playing the driving brass chords and complex wind figurations with professional ease.

The plot of Force Awakens combines the naivete of Star Wars with the frenzied chase of Empire. Luke Skywalker is missing, and the movie is about a frantic race between baddies the First Order and the newly formed Resistance to find the map that holds the key to his location. The map is inside an adora-ball droid named BB-8, and this little guy is one of the most endearing of the new cast. BB-8 is rescued by Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku and Finn, a stormtrooper who came to his senses and refused to massacre villagers during the movie's opening sequence.

The second half of the film deals with the Resistance's effort to destroy yet another enormous doomsday device. In this film, the twice-destroyed Death Star has been upgraded to Starkiller Base, a planet-sized solar-powered super-laser that uses "hyperspace" technology to blow up entire solar systems. The assault on this monstrosity is the movie's best sequence, combining some very familiar tropes with the death of one major character, the rise to power of another, and at a crucial point in the film, a powerful use of the medieval Dies Irae theme. As played by the New York Philharmonic, the results were nothing less than thrilling. 

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