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New York Philharmonic debuts Star Wars scores, in landmark live-to-picture performances

Fans cross Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center after the New York Philharmonic's performance of the 'Return of the Jedi' score on Oct. 5, 2017. Jay Gabler/APM

Live film scores, performed in sync with specially prepared versions of the movies, are a booming business in orchestral music. Orchestras around the world routinely see sellouts for live performances of the scores to films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Home Alone.

Notice something all of those movies have in common? A composer: John Williams. A singular talent who holds a unique place in both movie history (only Walt Disney has more Oscar nominations) and music history (there's no more popular living composer, bar none), Williams is most famously responsible for the scores to eight Star Wars movies — including the original trilogy (1977-1983), the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), The Force Awakens sequel (2015) and this year's forthcoming Last Jedi.

Both because of the genius of Williams's scoring and the unmatched pop-culture ubiquity of the franchise, the Star Wars films were the holy grail of live-score performance. Now, at last, they've made their debut in that format, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic. In performances starting Sept. 15 and concluding this past Saturday, Oct. 7, the Philharmonic performed the scores to all three films in the original trilogy as well as the wildly popular Force Awakens.

The controversial prequels, understandably, have been left on the shelf for now. If there was anything about the prequels that didn't inspire fans to furrow their brows, it was Williams's music, which helps to tug us in to the epic of Anakin Skywalker's fall despite some questionable filmmaking choices by Lucas. Now that the lightsaber has been passed from Lucas to a younger generation of directors, it's Williams's music that remains the irreplaceable backbone of the entire franchise. Michael Giacchino did a fine job with the "Star Wars story" Rogue One, but it just wasn't the same.

Williams himself was unsure whether it would even be possible to perform the Star Wars scores live, he told me when I interviewed him for a Playbill article about the Philharmonic performances. Unlike traditional symphonic scores, film scores aren't written with the expectation that orchestra members will have to play them in continuous sequence: the scores are typically recorded in short bursts. The brass-heavy Star Wars scores are particularly athletic during the long battle sequences, but with a single intermission (as is typical for live score performances), the Philharmonic players proved themselves more than up to the task.

Darth Vader, R2-D2, and several Imperial troops stalked the elegant lobby of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center for last Thursday's performance of the score to Return of the Jedi. Some fans wore their own costumes, some dressed in formalwear, and some just wore shorts and t-shirts. It was a venue full of people intensely excited about live orchestral music, so much so that their cheers practically drowned out the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare when conductor David Newman raised his bow. The moment must have been particularly gratifying for Newman, whose father — famed film composer Alfred Newman — wrote that fanfare.

Seeing and hearing the music performed live in front of your eyes always enhances your appreciation of a film score, and such was certainly the case with Jedi. Three films into the series, Williams had already built a musical vocabulary of character and theme motifs, and the wonders he worked with them became remarkably clear under Newman's carefully-calibrated baton. Having heard the score innumerable times, it was remarkable for me to be able to look over to stage right and see harpist Nancy Allen pluck out the poignant final reprise of the Imperial March as Darth Vader breathed his last.

Hearing the score live also served as a reminder that Jedi is set almost entirely off the grid of George Lucas's Galactic Empire. Williams's music was integral to evoking first the remote, treacherous palace of Jabba the Hutt and then the bucolic but threatened woodland of the Ewoks. Rustic percussion, meant to suggest the Ewoks' own instruments (which ultimately include stormtrooper helmets), abounds. Some fudging was necessary to account for the absence of the men's choir that intones wordlessly during the Emperor's final scenes, but with the necessity of an expanded orchestra, there would hardly have been room for any more bodies on the stage.

Just as Luke held out hope for his father to return to the good side of the Force, we can hope that Lucasfilm — now owned by Disney — will return the original Star Wars trilogy to their rightful original versions. Lucas significantly altered the films starting with a 1997 Special Edition, and continuing into later home video releases. The results were appalling.

It's easy to understand why Lucas was disappointed in the limited mobility of the original Sy Snootles puppet, for example, but it's hard to understand why he still thinks the ostentatious and cartoonish CGI replacement achieved a more satisfying effect. Some day, if reason prevails, Lucasfilm will issue a properly restored edition of the unadorned original films. Until then, even in Geffen Hall, we have to put up with Greedo shooting first.

Even a Hayden Christensen cameo, though, couldn't mar the majesty of John Williams's glorious score. Now that the work of adapting the films for live score performance has been done, other orchestras can bring the Star Wars experience to their own communities; doubtless, such plans are already being laid. In the meantime, we can look forward to Dec. 15, when cinemas will come alive with yet another Star Wars score from a living legend who's still at it after 40 years.

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