The Force will be strong with the Houston Symphony as it brings the most critically lauded of the Star Wars films to Jones Hall during Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — in Concert. Audiences can experience this blockbuster film on the big screen above the orchestra as it performs John Williams’ award-winning score live, November 7–10. Houston Symphony Principal POPS Conductor Steven Reineke will lead the full complement of the major symphony orchestra through this unforgettable cinematic experience.
The film will certainly hold nostalgia for the franchise' fans, but for bass trombone player Phillip Freeman, Williams' cinema scores hold a meaningful place regarding his introduction into music, and
drive home the role Williams' music has played in contemporary culture's collective experience and memories.
"I don’t know many people my age that didn’t grow up being fans of Star Wars, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels," Freeman said. "Before I started listening to orchestral music, those scores were my idea of what a symphony sounded like."
The original recording for Star Wars was done by the London Symphony Orchestra. The movie boomed in the box office, as did the soundtrack. In 2004 it was preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry, citing it "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant." Its most iconic themes include the reprise of "A New Hope" in scenes associated with Luke and Leia and the menacing, militant "Imperial March."
For Freeman, who grew up with a musician father, music was in his life from an early age. He joined the school band during his sixth grade year and started listening to orchestral music starting around his high school years. He progressed to study music at University of Houston and then at Manhattan School of Music. He has been a regular member of the Houston Symphony since 2007.
The music of Williams influenced the budding musician's interests with Freeman choosing to play a brass instrument because of their heavy use in Williams' scores. He experienced a full circle moment when he got to meet Williams at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2002.
"[Williams] spends every summer at Tanglewood, and he wandered into a master class I was in. A bunch of us got to meet him. He was very approachable and a very nice guy. I met him again when he came and conducted the Houston Symphony Orchestra a couple years ago when he did a concert of all his music."
"Approachable" is an understatement about Williams. This is the same composer who personally greets fans serenading him from his own front lawn.
Williams earned his place in the annals of symphonic accomplishment. He composed the most recognizable scores to myriad classic films. He received the National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honor, the Olympic Order, and several Oscar, Grammy and Emmy Awards. From 1980-1983, he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra's POPS, the name most closely associated with the POPS genre of symphonic music.
Even though POPS music is fun and enjoyable, it is nonetheless demands the utmost of preparation and places physical taxation on the musicians, especially the brass section.
"The big difference between the POPS and classical is the classical pieces in the repertoire might use the brass more sparingly, and with POPS we play much more often. There’s a danger there because that’s when repetitive stress injuries become way more likely," Freeman said.
Add that to the unforgiving timing of matching the music to the film, and the performance demands 100 percent perfection. Reineke uses a system of punches and streamers (covered here) to ease the burden of staying in sync with the movie, but even then, calamity sometimes may strike (covered here).
"In a classical concert, the conductor has some latitude in how slow or fast to take something. When it’s married to a picture, you don’t have that kind of latitude. It must line up with the drama as it unfolds on the scene. The biggest trick is just timing in terms of execution," he added.
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Demand for tickets to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — in Concert is surging, which prompted Houston Symphony executives to schedule a rare fifth performance. The "film with live score" format has been a guaranteed draw for an easy-to-understand reason: people enjoy the films, and the live music enhances the experience. In the 2018-19 season alone, the organization employed this format with An American in Paris, Apollo 13, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Home Alone and Star Wars: A New Hope.
The Star Wars connection is sure to attract a cross section of Houstonians who otherwise might not be regular patrons of the arts. Currently, Star Wars fever is surging with the much anticipated release of the next installation of the franchise: The Rise of Skywalker. If that wasn't enough, a glance into the clouds might reveal an actual skywalker. In celebration of the upcoming film, United Airlines has jumped on board to "fly the friendly galaxy," complete with a Star Wars-themed safety video and decorations on the plane's exterior.
Power up the light saber, and strap in for an intergalactic ride. This is a show any Star Wars lover wouldn't want to miss.
Performances of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back—in Concert are scheduled for November 7-10 at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. $29 to $164.