San Francisco Symphony strikes back with ‘Star Wars’ scores in summer series

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Ameena Golding/Staff

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At Davies Symphony Hall between July 18 and August 3, the San Francisco Symphony performed John Williamsscores for the original “Star Wars” trilogy alongside the films themselves. Only a small portion of fans present have likely seen the original trilogy while sitting in an audience — most have probably only seen the original films on home video. The presentation of the films with an audience and a live orchestra to boot allowed the chance to experience “Star Wars” in the most immersive way possible.

— Harrison Tunggal

‘Episode IV — A New Hope’

The music of “Star Wars” is performed by live orchestras so frequently that to expect a wholly original experience is rather futile. But the sheer effect of hearing the complexities of John Williams’ perennial score is undeniable. Even the inglorious moments of scoring that pad the film — subtle emotional cues that, in any other context, are overshadowed by recognizable, bombastic songs — prove to be profound compositions that offer more emotional heft than most contemporary film scores. And of course, the songs that everyone knows were rendered yet more emotionally resonant by a live orchestra.

Case in point: As soon as the lilting French horn melody of “Princess Leia’s Theme” rang out, many in the audience were wiping away tears, given Carrie Fisher’s death two years ago. Such moments were also a testament to the skill of conductor Sarah Hicks, one of the few female pops conductors working today, and the orchestra itself.

The night’s audience was overwhelmingly receptive, applauding at the first appearance of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and then at the climactic Death Star explosion. One audience member lovingly heckled Mark Hamill’s onscreen naiveté with a shout of “terrible acting!” The warm reactions came despite an awkward omission of “Cantina Band,” which might be attributed to the difficulty of transcribing diegetic music, restrictions on behalf of the companies that own the music’s rights or some other unknown reason. But that didn’t stop Hicks and the SF Symphony from earning a well-deserved standing ovation by the night’s end, one that resembled the film’s last shot of its lauded rebel heroes.

— Harrison Tunggal

‘Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back’

Ask anyone what their favorite “Star Wars” film is, and the answer you’re likely to get is “The Empire Strikes Back.” Fresh off the wide-eyed excitement of “A New Hope,” “Empire” imbues its characters with increasing maturity and emotional depth as they explore the galaxy, more often individually this time.

As a result of its largely insular storylines, “Empire” depends on the settings that each of its characters inhabit, from the lush swamp of Yoda’s home on Dagobah to the metallic corridors of the Millennium Falcon. Fortunately, crafting atmospheres is what John Williams is famous for, and his music both refines and exemplifies “Star Wars” — music that was the thoroughly enjoyable focus of the second installment of San Francisco Symphony’s “Star Wars” concert series.

Conducted by Emil de Cou, the live performance breathed life into many of the film’s best-loved moments. As can be expected with Williams’ score, the brass section brought both elevated suspense — as in “The Battle in the Snow,” set on icy Hoth — and incredible grandeur, such as during the introduction of the now-iconic “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” which scores the shadow of Darth Vader’s massive flagship looming over the imperial fleet.

But more understated moments were also buttressed by the spirited performance of the film’s score. Han and Leia’s courtship glows with smoldering chemistry, and their trademark barbs are softened with the swooning “Han Solo and the Princess.” The night’s performance shone during the scenes of Luke’s Jedi training: The woodwinds shimmered like the mist rising from Dagobah, and the melodic strings were evocative of the quiet lyricism in Yoda’s philosophy.

For many, “Empire” presents the perfect marriage of characterization, atmosphere and action. With live music behind it, the film became downright magical.

— Sahana Rangarajan

‘Episode VI — Return of the Jedi’

“Return of the Jedi” holds the unique distinction of being the weakest film in the original trilogy, while having some of the saga’s best music — excluding, of course, “Jedi Rocks,” a funk-rock atrocity that was added onto the film for a 1997 rerelease. Thankfully, the SF Symphony omitted it, but presenting “Return” allowed it and conductor Jack Everly to perform nearly every memorable theme from the previous two films, along with the third film’s unique compositions such as “The Emperor” and “Luke and Leia,” the latter offering the most emotional moment of the evening.

Going beyond the emotional resonance of the night’s music, the finale of the SF Symphony’s “Star Wars” performances offered something more profound and rare — a chance for “Star Wars” fans to feel united.

Recently, the “Star Wars” fandom has grown increasingly toxic, with many fans harassing director Rian Johnson online, and particularly deplorably, many taking part in the racist and sexist bullying of actors like Kelly Marie Tran. So, to see a united fandom — some fans cosplayed as Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), while many little ones dressed in their best Leia outfits — was refreshing, even if the sense of community only lasted for a night. Ultimately, the SF Symphony’s performances were a reminder of what a fandom should feel like, accomplishing a greater goal than any musical performance could on its own.

— Harrison Tunggal

Contact Harrison Tunggal and Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].

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