NSO’s At the Movies 2: Star Wars

featuring Jo-Pei Weng (翁若珮) and the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus

When you think of famous movie scores, what do you think of? Most likely John Williams. Maybe Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, or Danny Elfman, James Horner, Philip Glass.

Well, The Last Jedi came out this past week, and I got to see it much sooner than I’d expected. The music is beyond great, very iconic, having been associated with 40ish years of people’s obsession with the famous Space Opera (not the cult kind). If you’re a classical music person, though, you may not be as musically crazy about soundtracks for a few reasons.

For one, you most likely hear in film music the echoes of Mahler, Wagner, Respighi, Walton, Holst, and many others. Secondly, especially with something like Star Wars, the music is inherently linked to the film, so I’d be fine with one of those live-music screenings (maybe), but not so much for just the soundtrack itself.

However, tonight’s interesting program mashed up some very disparate kinds of film music, bridging a sort of gap between the serious, truly classical forms and the film music that later became so popular in Hollywood. The responses were also vastly different.

First was Arnold Schoenberg’s Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, written in 1930 as the accompanying music to a silent film that existed only in the composer’s head. It’s film music, I suppose, but as 12-tone and glorious as you’d expect something from the period to be. It’s his op. 34, so just before the violin concerto and fourth quartet.

It’s safe(r), as you’ll see, to put this piece on this program because of the crowd pleaser that comes later (see the title of the article), and while the NSO maybe could have played slightly more crisply, it was a good reading, with the swells and vivid color that the composer so clearly desired, and that’s present in really all of his work, like the five orchestral pieces. Upon the close of the work, when the baton was coming down, there was a magical moment of silence, the kind you hope hangs in the air after a moving performance of really anything, but it turns out the audience just wasn’t sure if it was actually over. Perplexity, and a sort of obligatory applause, except for me. Very pleased.

Second on the program was Star Wars, a medley in five parts: opening theme, Leia’s theme, Darth Vader’s imperial march, Yoda’s theme, and the closing theme(s). This is a good example of how matters of interpretation are very much in the conductor’s hands, and he’s not just there flailing and pointing. Everyone knows the exact tempi, phrasing, the feel of the London Symphony’s recordings of the scores that appear in the movies, and so when it’s different, it’s obvious, and not just ‘faster’ or ‘slower’ but of phrasing, attacks, everything, and when it’s been a part of mass media and pop culture for decades, people know it.

It was well played, thrilling, powerful, epic, heroic expressive music for sure. But I think that its import lies in the movies themselves, the iconic association with the characters and the overall story. If it were just music, I promise I (and many others) wouldn’t have the kind of emotional response we do.

After the five-part medley was over, Maestro Lü returned with a small light saber baton, and began the imperial march again, but this time a Princess Leia snuck into the concert hall and tiptoed her way across the stage in front of the organ while imperial guards and stormtroopers pointed and looked around for her. As the piece continued, we got an emperor’s royal guard, Darth Vader (to shouts of applause), Darth Maul, Kylo Ren, more stormtroopers, who all walked and posed throughout the hall. It was really quite cool, but not at all the kind of thing I come to the concert hall for, so I was slightly conflicted, but also very geeking out about the Star Wars.

Once that was over, we had the intermission. After the interval, we got Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata.

It’s a piece I know by name only, but also dates from the 1930s, and has a stronger connection to classical tradition than Schoenberg’s work. The cantata is a centuries-old form, one even with religious connections back to the days of Bach.

Prokofiev’s work was obviously very Russian, secular and rustic in places, but also at times very somber. It made me want to see the movie (which actually exists) that it accompanies. The NSO sounded great here, with the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus, and in one small segment with the mezzo-soprano that was really very touching, somber and heartfelt. Remember, these Taiwanese folk are singing in Russian.

It was very well performed, and arguably stands alone as well as Schoenberg’s music does as a concert piece. I’m sure I would have been more moved had I been more familiar with it, but this reading (the first time I’ve ever listened to the piece in full, live or otherwise) reminds us of what a fantastic composer Prokofiev was, and the NSO treated it very well. The applause for this achievement, with a few hundred performers onstage for a hefty piece like this, was also rapturous, but more for the achievement than any emotional connection the audience overall had for the piece. It’s impressive, memorable, glorious, to have a large orchestra with chorus and mezzo-soprano perform so well such a dramatic piece of music, and the audience clearly, thankfully appreciated it. That was refreshing after the Star Wars escapades.

We don’t really have a lot of the movie-in-concert type events here, at least not until recently. I thought it was maybe because the powers that be here were more strongly dedicated to serious classical music than elsewhere, but they also have seats to fill. There were no movie screenings, but I think it just turns out the trend hadn’t gotten here yet, but here it is. I was pleased to have in Schoenberg (the main reason I went) and Prokofiev the contrast to John Williams. They are indeed three very different types of cinematic music.

There are a few more concerts coming up this week and next (I think), so do look out for those. See you soon, and may the fo… nope. Never mind.

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