Bobby Roberts attended Star Wars: In Concert’s performance of “A New Hope” in Portland and shared his night at the theater with us.
The first thing that jumps out at you is the size of the screen, really.
You’d think it’d be that you’re at the symphony at all, with all this ornate decoration surrounding you—everything all fancy-schmancy and super-expensive and quietly intimidating—a sense of opulence hanging over your shoulders like a thin blue haze of privilege and smoke from decades back, when people were still allowed to do that indoors. But no, the immediate jolt upon entering the concert hall is the size of the screen suspended directly over the orchestra. Looming, really. A pop-culture behemoth imposing itself on highbrow tastes.
Star Wars: In Concert is a nationally touring concert series featuring live performances of John Williams’ full 1977 score timed (almost) perfectly to picture. Every performance is unique, and if you were a motivated fanatic of the Maestro’s work (and also unfathomably rich) you could follow the tour like some sort of film score Band-Aid enjoying the myriad variations on orchestral genius as each city’s symphony brings the score to life in their own unique way.
In Portland, the 70+ piece orchestra (featuring a violinist wearing Leia buns), conducted by Norman Huynh (rocking some bright red sneakers he put through a workout while hopping and bouncing through the performance) filled the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with some of the most beloved film music ever written, starting with the 20th Century Fox fanfare hitting the crowd like a tiny surprise. The Fox logo illuminated the screen shortly afterwards to a rolling cheer that didn’t let up until the 2nd paragraph of the scroll cleared the top of the screen, and just like that, the Schnitz became the best movie theater Portland’s ever had.
But you’ve got to be willing to go with those slight—but meaningful—changes. Star Wars: In Concert forces re-evaluation of a film you think you know front to back. Because once the music changes, so does the picture; once your brain stops keeping score against the version in your head, the textures of the film and its music begin revealing new things constantly; the lushness of the strings during “Burning Homestead,” the snarkily dismissive drop of Alec Guinness’ chin while Harrison Ford is running his yap, the crooked jank of Artoo’s dome hanging onto the barrel by a pair of wires, the guttural glee of tubas blurting out Jabba’s theme.
In the bigger moments, counterintuitive as it may sound—try to peel your eyes from the screen to watch the performers digging into the gold John Williams gave them. Even studied professionals will let go some childlike excitement at what they’re getting to do on that stage if you look at just the right moment. A percussionist animatedly bringing the Tusken attack to life, a cellist smiling as Luke and Leia go swinging across a chasm—there’s just as much joy on the stage as there is in the audience.
That joy is infectious and contagious, and by the time the last crescendo builds to a final, beautiful explosion, and the Star Wars logo bursts onto the screen one last time, I found myself—wet-eyed and grinning a mile wide—thinking a thing I’d never expected: “I believe I’m all good with this movie for a long, long time.” Because it’s not often something that familiar is utterly renewed like that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a theatrical experience with Star Wars remotely similar to it. Kalmar’s conducting of the Oregon Symphony’s performance was warmly extraordinary, immersive, and above all, transformative. And after all those years spent chasing after the nostalgia-tinted memories of my first trip to that galaxy far, far away, I have an amazing, vivid, new experience to cherish, and I think I wanna just let this version of Star Wars take up much-deserved room in my head (and my heart) and just be for awhile.
…at least, until The Empire Strikes Back: In Concert comes through town.
Editor’s note: In a previous version of this article we incorrectly named the conductor of the perfromance as Carlos Kalmar. The conductor for this concert was Norman Huynh.