A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an unlikely trio banded together to take down the evil Galactic Empire and restore freedom among the stars. Against a backdrop of classical music, “Star Wars” has become one of the most celebrated science fiction series — the timelessness of the score inextricable from the franchise’s legacy.
On the night of Sept.17, the San Francisco Symphony brought “Star Wars: A New Hope” to life in concert, performing the soundtrack while the film played overhead. Bringing new force to the score, conductor Damon Gupton paid homage to the acclaimed work of composer John Williams, emphasizing music’s pivotal role in the space opera’s lasting appeal.
The voice of Darth Vader sounded over the speakers to welcome a constellation of excited audience members, a handful of whom were dressed in Jedi attire. Between heavy, dramaticized breaths, the voice joked that all cell phone users would be tracked down by Boba Fett. From the beginning, the Symphony embraced the intricate lore of the beloved franchise, welcoming fans both old and new.
Though the audience came for the music, the experience was nothing short of cinematic. Opening with the 20th Century Fox Fanfare, the Symphony evoked the feeling of a movie premiere. Even those who had seen the film hundreds of times became swept up in the anticipatory air; one could know the galactic saga inside out and still feel as though they were experiencing it for the very first time.
As the opening crawl scrolled across the screen, the orchestra triumphantly played the esteemed “Main Title.” Violin bows moving in unison, the theme assumed a militaristic feel, further augmented by the authoritative direction of Gupton. Under the guidance of his steady hand, the ensemble was destined for victory.
As the camera tilted downward, the music quieted into faint twinklings reminiscent of stars sparkling in darkness. Just as one settled into the serene, blue luminescence of the planet onscreen, a spaceship whirred overhead, laser sounds layering over the crescendoing score. Gupton’s gestures shifted from commanding to lulling, precise to fluid, as he gracefully executed each transition.
While in the presence of a live orchestra, one becomes acutely aware of music’s absence. When C-3PO and R2-D2 crash landed on Tatooine, silence accompanied their hazy navigation through the sandy planet. As R2-D2 was abducted by Jawas, the stillness slowly filled with a springy accompaniment, Gupton playfully bouncing from side to side. Throughout its performance, the Symphony managed to accompany without dominating, crescendoing and quieting as the film progressed.
Just as the Force surrounds, penetrates and binds the galaxy together, so too do musical themes that weave their way through the Skywalker saga. Leitmotifs ground certain scenes and characters, establishing a universal cohesion spanning from Anakin to Rey.
First playing “The Force Theme” as Princess Leia hid the Death Star plans in R2-D2, the Symphony imbued the melody with different affects over the course of the performance. As Luke Skywalker stared out into Tatooine’s binary sunset, it rang with purposeful, hopeful clarity. As Han Solo, Chewbacca and Luke received their medals in the final scene, it adopted a more jubilant, marching feel. Even when patterns repeated, they never felt exactly the same — a testament to the Symphony’s ability to capture every emotional beat.
As the closing credits illuminated across the screen, the Symphony drove the score home with virtuosic aplomb. The highs and lows of the heroic journey amalgamated, conveying the essence of the film entirely through one song. Then, before taking a final bow, Gutpon grabbed a red lightsaber from offstage, wielding it before the audience with palpable excitement. Despite declaring his allegiance to the dark side, Gupton breathed an air of playful goodness.
Lightsabers whir and famous sound bites echo through the “Star Wars” universe, but the heart of the story lies in its score. Exuding pure intergalactic passion, Gupton proved himself fit to step into the great Williams’ shoes for the night — reminding audiences why the film and its soundtrack have stood the test of time.