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The Force Takes Over the Hollywood Bowl

August 10, 2018

Los Angeles Philharmonic

“Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough (Luke) ... your father’s lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight,” said the resonant voice of Alec Guinness.

And right on cue thousands of multicolored “lightsabers” lit up the Hollywood Bowl, waved by fans that had come on Aug. 7 to see a screening of Star Wars: A New Hope featuring John Williams’s score performed live by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by David Newman.

At the same time the audience was treated to a celebration of Hollywood’s royal family of movie music, as David Newman conducted the iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare composed by his father, Alfred Newman, in 1933.

Film screenings at the Hollywood Bowl have proved to be exceedingly popular. And this season the scores of John Williams are being given special prominence. It began on June 5 with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; continued July 20 and 21 with Jaws; Aug. 7 and 10 with Star Wars: A New Hope; followed Aug. 9 and 11 by Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Williams’s retrospective will conclude on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 and 2 with the maestro himself taking to the podium to conduct his greatest hits with film accompaniment.

In addition to the film music of John Williams, the summer programming has included a sing-along screening of Grease, Henry Mancini’s sophisticated score for The Pink Panther, and will conclude on Sept. 22 with what has become a Bowl tradition — the sing-along screening of The Sound of Music.

Nothing could match the impact Star Wars had when it first made the jump to light speed in 1977. From those glowing blue words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” to the thunderous first chord of John Williams’s score, to the awe-inspiring impact of the film’s opening space chase, it was clear that the world of science fiction cinema was about to change forever. Jimmy Carter was president, the first PC — the Commodore PET — was introduced, and Apple Computer incorporated. It was a long time ago ...

That being said, seeing a beautiful digital projection of Star Wars: A New Hope with the score performed live by the forceful musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was very special. And even though most of the audience could recite every line of dialog, they showed their appreciation throughout the film for having the chance to see it in such a unique manner. And when the credits finally rolled, the ovation they gave to Newman and the orchestra was almost as loud as the destruction of the Death Star. The only disappointment was the lack of a jazz combo to properly perform Williams’s jaunty music for the multispecies cantina scene in the Tatooine spaceport town of Mos Eisley.

Even before Tuesday’s concert began, there were Imperial Storm Troopers, several Obi-Wan Kenobis, a Luke Skywalker or two, and one imposing Darth Vader on hand to greet the faithful and pose for selfies. One usher even sported a pair of Princess Leia hair buns.

When you watch Star Wars on TV it’s easy to miss the extent to which Williams’s (almost wall-to-wall) score propels the film and helps to establish its multiple mood swings that range from the power of the opening theme, to the motives associated with Luke Skywalker, the evil Empire, and the power of the Force, as well as the quieter atmospheric scenes that draw freely on the viscous passages of Rite of Spring and flowing romanticism of Scheherazade.

Having the chance to hear this music performed live (and skillfully amplified), brought Williams’s score into sharper focus than ever, with the sweeping textures of the Philharmonic strings and resonant power of the brass section and percussion leading the way.

It was also possible to appreciate Williams’s score in the context of Hollywood movie music history — a tradition that was profoundly influenced by the composers (including Alfred Newman) that fled a toxic situation in Europe and found their way to Los Angeles: Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, and Miklos Rozsa, along with Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer, Igor Stravinsky, Bertolt Brecht, and Thomas Mann. The list goes on.

Star Wars is, in essence, an intergalactic swashbuckler in the Errol Flynn/Erich Korngold tradition. Filing out, it was impossible not to hear this now classic score ringing in your ears.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).