29 Apr 2019

Review: NZSO Seduced by the Dark Side

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 29 April 2019

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra continues to wow with popular culture. Reviewer Hadyn Green was in the audience for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

The Empire Strikes Back is one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. It’s almost the “indie” film of the original trilogy; making less money than the other two, while being critically acclaimed. A lot of people put this down to how dark it is. I feel it’s because of director, Irvin Kershner.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Photo: © 2018 & ™LUCASFILM LTD. All Rights Reserved © Disney

Kershner was infinitely more talented than George Lucas when it came to the job of directing and worked better with actors, so Empire has more depth and the characters feel more real. Kershner was also an incredibly happy friendly person whose personality seems at odds with the dark tone of the film.

Until you realise the film is about hope – to be honest, one can make a compelling argument that every Star Wars film is about hope. It’s easy to get bogged down in the gloom (like an X-wing on Dagobah), but there’s so much growing excitement in Empire. And this is so clear when you listen to the music.

John Williams’s Oscar-nominated score for Empire is uplifting and inspiring. While there are dark sections, the music is still bold and stirring, not dreary and funeral. Things may be going badly, but they’re doing so in grand fashion.

Williams score is obviously peppered with the 'Imperial March (Vader’s theme)', but there’s also the softness of 'Leia’s theme' and the rising notes of Luke’s theme up against it (brought over from the first film).

Sometimes this is used as a musical sign post. In the battle of snow planet of Hoth, as Han, Leia, Chewie and C3PO enter the Millennium Falcon, the music changes suddenly from the 'Imperial theme' to 'Leia’s'. It’s a surprisingly subtle change but one that lets you know the danger has passed and they’re about to escape. Williams is signally that there’s still hope.

'Yoda’s theme' too is light and almost religious in parts. But Yoda is introduced as comic relief, and there’s often humour as he tries to teach a stubborn Luke, so his theme includes playful elements, most notably string plucks. As a side note, Kershner, even in interviews just before his death in 2010, would refer to Yoda as though he was another actor on set.

The big moments of the film, most notably Darth Vader’s big reveal as Luke’s father, are not underscored with bombastic sounds. Williams has gone for a softer, minimal musical element. This seems at odds to modern film where you expect every story beat to be punctuated with a chord. Even after the opening title crawl the music is soft and understated, despite the first shot being a Star Destroyer firing off probe droids and one plummeting to the surface of Hoth.

Do or do not. There is no try.

Williams worked a masterpiece with this soundtrack, more so than A New Hope, that preceded it. Though at times I worried for the musicians of the NZSO.

While long stretches of A New Hope go without score, Empire has very few of these. And because of the prevalence of the 'Imperial March', the brass section got very little time off. I had a good view of the trombonists and I don’t think I saw him without his instrument at least at the ready.

Of course, the strings section worked wonders too. Empire has long periods with just small amounts of strings by themselves under dialogue. By the end of the film some of those violinists would have bigger biceps than arm wrestlers.

Conductor Hamish McKeich

Conductor Hamish McKeich Photo: RNZ/Kirsten Johnstone

I was also able to watch conductor Hamish McKeich’s screen. The screen plays the film and has bars moving across it and dots. This is the same system Williams used back in 1979 when he was recording the original.

Seeing this you have to marvel at the timing of it all. It’s one thing to perform a symphony, but to do so that it lines up with the beats of a movie at the same time is mind-boggling. But they pulled it off.

The orchestra launching into the finale that plays over the credits was astounding. The audience treated the performance like a movie and began applauding just at the moment they should have been listening (though a small round of applause for John Williams’s name in the credits felt apt).

The NZSO have Star Wars performances coming up in Auckland and Christchurch. Auckland can enjoy A New Hope on 4th May (May the fourth be with you) and The Empire Strikes Back on 5th May (Revenge of the 5th to Star Wars nerds) If there are still tickets available, I strongly urge you to go.