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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.

And then you go up the stairs and the gold-trimmed, curli-cued extravagance is cut through with the smell of cookies and pretzels, and echoing in the hallways behind you is the happy burbling of a venue filling up with excited families, and the tinny electronic sound of toy lightsabers sparking to life. And suddenly that giant rectangle, the words “Star” and “Wars” big as life and holding a spot for the landmark film that’s about to be thrown upon it, fits perfectly.

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.

Star Wars: In Concert is a transformative movie-going experience. Muted lights illuminate the orchestra, shifting colors to accompany the visual and emotional tones as the film progresses. There is an intermission as the Millennium Falcon is sucked into the Death Star, and the subtitled 2011 blu-ray cut of the film has only the dialog and sound effects present.
A good percentage of the audience probably has that score memorized, and that level of familiarity can trip you up at first. Differences in performance, filtered through unfamiliar acoustics, might initially get interpreted as mistakes. And in brief, rare instances, that’s exactly what they are; my performance featured two missed transitions (which—again—not bad considering you’re asking a 70+ piece orchestra to one-take-jake Star Wars in front of a live audience). But the point of Star Wars: In Concert isn’t to bring the soundtrack in with you like a nun wielding a yardstick. Nobody—neither the audience and or the musicians—are there for a Gus Van Sant-ian Psycho-esque note-for-note recreation of music you’ve heard a million times before. The point is to see, and most importantly hear Episode IV in a way you’ll never hear it again.

Star Wars A New Hope In Concert

It’s startling just how enveloping the music quickly becomes, and depending on the dynamics of any given scene, you can either forget there’s an orchestra providing that music right there in front of you—or be so aware of the beauty in their performance that you wish there was no dialog, sound effects, or subtitles at all. Just Gil Taylor’s imagery, the actor’s (impossibly!) young faces, and that music taking on subtle nuances only a new orchestral interpretation can reveal.

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.