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PRIMER | The TSO's Star Wars Episode IV —  "I’m already getting chills thinking about it” 

By Brian Chang on January 21, 2019

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra embarks on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert. Score by John Williams. January 23- January 26, 2019, 7:30pm. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto. Details here. For tickets see www.tso.ca

Grab the edge of your seats and prepare to blast off into the grandest space saga ever created. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra begins a brave, bold, box-office-smashing foray into the live film concert format of the Star Wars Universe. First up, this week’s concerts of the original, 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope, music written by the incomparable John Williams.

“I’m imagining playing the 20th-century fanfare and then the pause right after when the A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away appears. That moment of silence — I’m already getting chills thinking about it,” says Alastair Eng, Toronto Symphony Orchestra Cellist, and big Star Wars Fan.

“In my third year of college, I remember talking to my roommate. We were watching Star Wars: A New Hope. We had seen the movies a million times, but listening to the music we thought: wouldn’t it be a dream come true to play the movies, front to back? At the time, movies with live orchestra weren’t a thing. Now, this is awesome, a dream come true 15 or so years later.”

Taking the TSO through Mos Eisley Cantina, the lightsaber battles, and Death Star trenches will be American conductor Sarah Hicks. She’s built a name for herself in the genre of live-film conducting and loves bringing it to new audiences. “No matter how many times you’ve seen a film, seeing it in live music is a new and thrilling experience,” she shares. “When you see it with a full orchestra, it’s a much more immersive experience; it really does surround you.”

American conductor Sarah Hicks (Photo courtesy of the artist)
American conductor Sarah Hicks (Photo courtesy of the artist)

The work to conduct concerts like this is very challenging, and unique to the live film concert format. “The coordination with a film is highly technical, highly produced,” shares Hicks. “It’s a very different skill set for a conductor to master. Not all are comfortable with it. It’s something that I really enjoy doing as it engages the brain in a different way. I have to coordinate everything with information on my own monitor: cues coming up, measure numbers, vertical lines [for starts and stops], punches [for tempi]. The monitor corresponds with my score, which is specially prepared for this live performance. All of this visual information on the monitor and the film screen must match the score which I then need to transmit [through gesture] to the musicians. It’s incredible multi-tasking; but an interesting challenge.” The audience just has to sit, watch, and listen.

A lot of the major themes will be familiar to audiences, they’re part of the film, every time it is watched. “Often, the first time people hear a symphony orchestra is in a film score,” says Hicks. “It’s a part of our culture. It’s not a foreign, elitist thing. It’s a part of pop culture and the soundscape of the 21st century.” These sounds and this concert are part of how films are experienced by audiences. The iconic Star Wars theme for example, is instantly recognizable by most, even if they have never set foot in a symphony hall.

Some of these themes are less familiar, but no less interesting. Hicks notes a few of her highlights in the score: “the Jawas come in and have this quirky music; when Ben Kenobi first comes in there’s a harp glissando. There are so many layers to this music.”

Alastair Eng, cellist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of the TSO)
Alastair Eng, cellist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of the TSO)

Eng highlights some of his favourite music in the score, as well. “We hear the Force theme, for example, when Luke is staring at the sunsets. But you also hear it again in the Throne Room. The same notes, but different feelings. Later, when the Millenium Falcon is escaping from the Death Star and there’s the battle with Tie fighters — that’s some of the most exciting, fun music to play and listen to. It’s legitimately fantastical music.” But also, what Eng calls, “Note-y.” Lots of notes, lots of rhythms, and lots of music are in store.

“It’s very hard to play the entire concert. When the London Symphony Orchestra recorded this, they would do takes spread over a few hours or days for various parts,” shares Eng. “For us, we play consecutively, the only breaks we have are when the music stops playing. So that is extremely tough, endurance-wise. The very end, for example, the Throne Room through the end credits, I think we’re playing for 18 minutes straight covering almost every major theme throughout the film.”

The work requires a slightly different approach to rehearsal than just score study and practicing. Eng practices using a technique he calls “karaoke-ing”: “I sit with the score and movie and play it through as if we’re doing it in concert.” Doing this is like establishing a roadmap. The music is just one aspect of the performance, the other is the film, and the film is the same every time. Practicing with the film helps Eng prepare to deliver live. “It helps me to prepare for when I can take it easy, when I need to step back, and when I really need to give more. There are moments where strings might be in danger of being covered by the brass. Sometimes we need to step it up a bit and give that much more.”

The responsibility is high for a symphony orchestra to deliver on concerts like these. There’s a reason why only the top-tier orchestras can put on a concert like this. Only they can field the production costs, but also the level of athleticism and artistry required to do it successfully. It takes artists like Hicks and Eng, working their hardest, to bring this Space Opera to life.

Eng is really excited for these performances. His fanboy is ready for the chance to tackle the score, but also be part of the live film environment as well. “I’m really looking forward to hearing the absolutely amazing musicians in our orchestra,” he says. “The horns, who are among my favourite sections in the orchestra to listen to; they are wonderful people and incredible musicians. They play all of the great themes.”

Hicks looks forward to bring the Star Wars action to Toronto audiences. “I love working with the TSO,” she shares, “it’s an amazing group of musicians. It’s gratifying that orchestras are extending their work into communities and presenting concerts to different parts of the demographics of the communities they serve. It’s an important part of the mission of all orchestras, to share the emotional punch an orchestra can deliver. I’m delighted these films have been so popular around the world.”

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