Saturday, October 14, 2017

Star Wars Saturday: Star Wars in Concert(s)

Last week I teased a fun post that was coming up. This week I can tell you that I attended not just two concerts featuring the music of Star Wars within the course of a week!

In August I was browsing online and found out that the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra was featuring a weekend of Star Wars music. That lined up with my Fall Break, which meant I wouldn't have anything going on at church or school and could spend the weekend at my parents' home.

I am very used to doing things like this by myself, but I didn't have to this time! I invited my parents to come along with me, since I was going to be hanging out at home anyway. I paid for their tickets - I wouldn't say I was "dragging" them along, but I know that they probably wouldn't do something like this if I hadn't asked them to come.

Meanwhile, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO) is a top orchestra, and actually won a bid to show A New Hope on the big screen while allowing the orchestra to play all of the soundtrack. The film would be the same – dialogue and sound effects would still be there – but the soundtrack would be taken out completely, allowing the orchestra’s sound to not compete.

I was in Kalamazoo right before school began and saw an advertisement for this concert posted around town. It happened to be a few weeks after I had purchased the tickets for the Ann Arbor Symphony concert, and initially I just brushed it off. It was only a mere six days after the other concert, and wouldn't the be too much Star Wars music at once? 

Then my brain recalculated and gave me my simple answer: You can't have enough Star Wars music. 

So the first day the tickets were available, I bought one. 

Concert #1: "The Music of Star Wars" by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra
October 7, 2017 8:00 p.m.

What made this first concert a little more troublesome was that the Michigan football team was playing at home against Michigan State, and when I bought the symphony tickets they hadn't announced the start time for the game. I kept hoping that it would be a 3:30 (or - even better - a noon) kickoff, but with both teams being good draws for TV audiences, they stuck the kickoff at 7:30.

If you know Ann Arbor, you'd know that Michigan Stadium and the Michigan Theater are not close to each other. Michigan Stadium is south of center, while the Michigan Theater is downtown. People going to the game wouldn't be parking downtown, but there would still be lots of people populating the bars.

The venue was the historic Michigan Theater, located on Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor. To really understand where we were, Liberty Street connects with State Street, which is right on the University of Michigan campus.

We had dinner at Zingerman's Roadhouse on the west side of town before driving into center. I think my dad was pretty tense at having to drive amongst all the college students. But after circling around a couple of times, we found a parking garage right next to the theater that had single spots available. But if we could find the empty spot, we would only have to pay $5. (Clearly this wasn't Detroit or Chicago.)

It took a little while, but we found one! It was awesome to just cross the street and be at the theater. I felt a little guilty not wearing any maize and blue. I am a real Michigan fan - seriously!

My guilt disappeared when we entered the theater. It is a small lobby and it was full of Star Wars cosplayers! They had strung paper X-Wings, TIE fighters, and a Death Star across the balcony, and there were two tables featuring some of the weapons of the troupe that was performing lightsaber fights during the concert: The Ring Of Steel.

The first table had some excellent-looking lightsabers that the group uses, and one of the performers was there and invited us to pick them up! These were certainly not the plastic Target-style lightsabers you can get - these don't collapse, are brightly lit, and heavy! I picked up the blue, and my dad picked up a green.

The guy also told us how they used old parts of 1940s camera equipment to create the lightsabers, which is why Rey's lightsaber looks the way it does!

They had a photo booth as well, but they were closing down as we arrived. However we did get some shots with the cosplayers. Mom even took my camera and got a fantastic shot of a woman cosplaying Asajj Ventress!

The final shot I got was with a bunch of cosplayers, including one playing Rey. I got in the shot, but realized that I didn't have a weapon like the rest of them! I was just going to pretend to do a force push, but then the Rey cosplayer gave me her staff! I was super geeked, and probably held it wrong in the picture, but I didn't care. I'm not good at making costumes, so the lightsaber and staff are the closest I'll get to those cool props!

We went up the stairs to the balcony and got our front row seats! The orchestra was already warming up when we took our seats, and every so often I'd hear strands of Star Wars pop out of the mess of notes.

The interior of the theater was also quite small - I wasn't expecting it to be that small, honestly. The stage had an extension as well as stairs for the fighting performers to use. We had a great view of everything!

The concert started as all concerts do: the first chair (concertmaster) came out, tuned the orchestra, the conductor came out and shook her hand, and then got up to the mic saying, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." He then took out a lightsaber and conducted the first piece with it! (From a conductor's perspective, that must have been quite uncomfortable. He barely moved that hand at all!)

The concert was a mix of single pieces and medleys, and went through the saga in release order. We started with a medley of pieces from A New Hope. The Empire Strikes Back covered "The Asteroid Field" (which could have gone faster) and "Yoda's Theme," where they have Luke come up with four Jedi-in-training and helping them through their lightsaber training. It made me sad; this is probably what it was like when Luke first started training his force-sensitive students!

Next was Return of the Jedi featuring "Parade of the Ewoks" and "The Forest Battle!" It was really fun to hear that one performed in person.

They then turned to the prequels, starting with "Anakin's Theme" from The Phantom Menace and "Duel of the Fates." Naturally, Attack of the Clones only had one entry, "Across the Stars," but it was one of the most beautiful pieces of the concert. The credit goes to the oboist, who channeled the emotion right into the instrument.

I was expecting a little more from Revenge of the Sith, but "Battle of the Heroes" and "Revenge of the Sith" were only average. Luckily, right after those we returned to A New Hope and brightened it up with the "Cantina Band!" My mother pointed out that the saxophones only played in this piece the entire concert, but it was another one of the best pieces of the night. Everyone was tapping their feet!

"Princess Leia's Theme" was brought back in its entirety, and I knew that the piece ends with a beautiful solo by the first violin, and she didn't disappoint.

The night finished with a few pieces from The Force Awakens, including "Scherzo for X-Wings" and "Jedi Steps and Finale." I was a little surprised that "Rey's Theme" wasn't there, though it was brought up in the "Jedi Steps and Finale." During this song, they had Rey come up on stage and present Old Man Luke with a lightsaber. In my head, I was screaming, What comes neeeeext?! I need to know!!!!!!! So clearly I'm not being brainwashed by The Last Jedi or anything like that.

There was an encore of the original Star Wars single to wrap up the night. And before we knew it, we were back at our car on our way home (just missing the massive deluge of rain that came about 30 minutes later).

I greatly enjoyed the venue, the seats, and the nice, concise concert that was given. (The total running time was about 75 minutes.) The music was lovely, and the extras were a lot of fun.

(I'll just keep out the fact that the two boys behind us were obnoxiously loud. Oh, wait. Did I mention it anyway? Oops.)


Concert #2: "Star Wars: A New Hope" by the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
October 13, 2017 8:00 p.m.


This was definitely NOT the same concert as last week’s. The venue was different, the group was different, and the premise was different. And I’m so glad this one was the second one, because it was incredible and overshadowed the first one just a bit.

I had school during the day, but I actually purchased a night at a local hotel in Kalamazoo since I was going to be there the next evening for a Lutheran Music Festival. Because of that, I jetted school as soon as I could, drove to the hotel, checked in, had a great workout in their teeny-tiny fitness center, got dressed in my jeans and boots, Star Wars shirt, and black blazer, and headed to the concert. 

On Saturday our obstacle was Michigan and Michigan State fans and college students. Friday's obstacle ended up being other Star Wars fans!

As I approached the venue I realized that this concert was taking place in the heart of Western Michigan University, in the massive Miller Auditorium. When I had checked ticket availability on Wednesday it looked like a lot of seats were available, but they must have filled them up because the line for cars to get to the parking structure and surrounding parking lots was huge! I was going to get there with 1/2 hour to spare, but started to get a little worried that I was going to be stuck in traffic when it began. 

I finally made my way in and was relieved to see that Western had security and parking attendance helping stabilize traffic and move cars along. I kept rolling until I was in the parking garage, and then it actually wasn't too hard to find a parking spot on the top level. (And it was free!)

The parking structure connected to Miller Auditorium with a walkway, and it made it nice and easy to walk over there. I also ended up on the correct level - the Grand Tier. 

The atmosphere in the lobby was a bit more subdued, but I suspect that was because there were just so many people that there wasn't room for a whole lot more. They did have the same photo booth that they did in Ann Arbor, and I did see Darth Vader and stormtroopers posing for pictures on the lower level, but that was it for "official" hype. There were a few more cosplayers, though - I saw Leia, Rey, some Jedi, and a fully gussied up Padme Amidala from The Phantom Menace. The regular Star Wars shirts were plentiful, including my own. I especially loved the lady who was probably in her 80s proudly wearing her blue Star Wars shirt. 

I was very pleased with my seats. I was in the first balcony, but over to the left side. There were only five seats in each row, and only ten rows before it went to the main balcony that was looking at the stage head-on. I was surrounded by couples on date night, which was cute. It also meant that the three rows in front of me didn't have a person sitting there - I was the lone wolf of the section. I didn't care. 

The theater itself had to be three times as large as the Michigan Theater, if not more. I could definitely tell with the sound of the audience reverberating inside. It was going to be a good sound, that's for sure. 

The screen was huge and covered three-fourths of the opening of the stage. The orchestra was underneath it, and because of my view I couldn't see the percussion section very well, which was a bummer - I love watching them. The brass was situated across the top, with the woodwinds right in front of them, and a huge string section. I think the orchestra itself was also bigger that Ann Arbor's - I think it was about twice as big - and it covered the whole stage. 

The concert didn't start on time - maybe the people in charge knew that there were traffic backups and wanted to give those people a chance to get in. I didn't mind - I didn't have a long drive waiting for me, and it was nice to just sit and listen to the orchestra warm up.

There was some audio that welcomed everyone to the concert, but I couldn't hear it too well because not all the speakers were broadcasting it and there was a lot of excited audience members clapping during it. If I heard it correctly, it was just telling people to silence their phones (which I'd checked about eight times before the announcement was made, just to make sure).

Then four people came out to welcome us. They kept their comments short, but a few asked some "raise hand" questions. I got to raise my hand to show this was my first time at a KSO event. They also asked if anyone was seeing A New Hope for the first time, and I did see some hands go up! After the welcome, Darth Vader shooed the speakers off the stage so the show could begin.

Then the conductor, Daniel Brier, came to the stage. I looked around - aside from a few single seats here and there, the place was full! (The theater has almost 4,000 seats, FYI.) 

The lights went down, and I looked over at Brier's conducting podium. He had a giant stand holding the massive copy of the score, but he also had a large computer screen in front of him. As I watched, a white vertical line went across the screen from left to right. A green line followed that. When the white line made it to the other side, a flash appeared at the center of the screen in a circle and Brier started his conducting motion. When the green line made it over the flash happened again and Brier was conducting the first downbeat. It happened to be the 20th Century Fox theme, and I don't think people were expecting that, and there was clapping when they started to play it. (I think people miss that music, though they don't regret Disney purchasing Star Wars one bit.)

The white lines would appear every so often (I'd say about 5-7 seconds) so that Brier could tell where his beats were supposed to be. Green lines would also appear in the middle of tracks to show where there was going to be a change in theme or tempo. The computer screen was also showing the movie, but I think it was a little dimmer than the big screen. 

I was entranced by that little computer screen. It all made sense now - how they can time the music directly with what is happening on screen. And Brier did it so well! As a musician and conductor, I could tell when he had to broaden the beat or shorten it to match when the vertical lines were hitting the right side of the screen. But honestly, if you didn't know music you wouldn't have heard anything different from what you hear as you watch the movie at home - it was that close. 

The orchestra, meanwhile, had to put all of its faith and hope in its conductor. They probably know the music backwards and forwards, but they had to follow his tempo exactly or they would be behind or ahead. I know fully well that it is hard to get people to watch the conductor. These instrumentalists had to be the best. (It's no wonder that only a few orchestras get to perform this type of event for Star Wars.)

In essence, I was watching three things: I was watching the conductor with his magic screen, I was watching the orchestra (especially when I knew an important solo or theme was going to be played), and I was watching the film on the screen. Honestly, I only watched the film when the orchestra wasn't playing anything, and that only happened about five or six times in the entire movie. (The cue for stopping was a red line across the screen.) The first segment - from the opening scroll to the droids' landing on Tatooine - was one unbroken segment of music, and that must have been overwhelming to perform, especially in the heat of the moment. 

I did find a couple of things to nitpick, though, because I am that kind of person. The first was the horn section. It was lined up with the rest of the brass in front of the percussion, but because of how they play their instrument, the bell faced away from the audience. The horns have some of the most important themes - including Luke's theme when he first appears on screen. But many times their sound was much more muted than it should have been. I wish the positioning of the horns would have allowed their sound to carry better. 

The second was that they didn't play the Cantina music! As you read, that was one of the best pieces performed by the Ann Arbor Symphony, and I was pretty bummed I wasn't going to hear it here. In all honesty, though, the edits that were made in that scene made it pretty hard to perform live. That, or they just didn't want to invest in a couple of saxophones. 

The screen muted the sound of the people in back just a bit, but when it had to be loud and bombastic, it came right through. The first chair flautist and oboist had a lot of work when it came to themes, but they were amazing. And the brass did a wonderful job introducing the Death Star every time it came on screen. (bum, bumbum BUUUUM!) Any time a battle was on screen it was so amazing to watch the orchestra's frenzied performance - I think my favorite was when Han and Luke are in the detention level. 

At the end, when the credits started to roll, people were applauding - naturally - for the end of the movie, but some people actually got up and left! The orchestra still plays completely through the closing credits, and people needed to leave early to get to their cars. I was a little miffed at that. I always stay till the credits are done, but for something like this it's basically mandatory since the orchestra isn't done yet! Honestly.

During those closing credits it was clear the orchestra could have a little fun, because Brier was no longer following the white and green lines and moving around much more. Having to conform to a set of lines on a screen must be hard for a conductor, and it was clear he was relieved to be done. Best of all? At the very end, instead of playing the normal credits wrap-up music for A New Hope, he pulled out the final 30 seconds of Return of the Jedi's wrap-up music, which I love so much. It does a better job of ending the movie than A New Hope's.

When they finally ended their last note, the entire auditorium stood up and cheered. They deserved that immediate standing ovation, which lasted for about 2 minutes as Brier had individuals and sections stand to get their applause. I and the rest of the audience wanted them to know how much we appreciated their hard work. 

This is only the beginning - by getting the chance to perform A New Hope, the KSO also secured rights to perform The Empire Strikes Back in their 2018-2019 season, and Return of the Jedi in 2019-2020. This means as soon as those tickets go on sale, I am buying them - not only for myself, but also for anyone else that wants to go. I felt kind of guilty last night because I think I took my parents to the wrong Star Wars concert - I think they would have enjoyed the KSO performance a lot more. I won't make that mistake next year! Best of all, I've done this before, and I know that I need to get there early, where to park, and what seats to get. 


Both of these concerts were a lot of fun, and definitely a requirement for the avid Star Wars fan. If you have an orchestra playing the Star Wars score during the movie, you need to find a way to see it. It is an incredible way to make a familiar movie new and exciting all over again!

PS. John Williams is a freakin' genius.

My name is Claire Nat! You can follow me on Twitter @CeePipes, or follow me on Facebook at facebook.com/blurbmusings. Check out my blog for other articles!


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