Return of the Jedi in Concert with the SSO

It’s October 1983 and third and final instalment of the Star Wars trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, has just been released in Melbourne. The queues for the cinema stretch around the corner of a city block. Will Han Solo be rescued? What will happen between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader now he’s been revealed as his father. Can the Rebel Alliance defeat the might of the evil Empire?

I’m nine years old and unfortunately I already know the answers to those questions because I bought that darn picture book of the movie before its release. I really wanted to know who that cool Biker Scout figurine I bought is.

That taught me not to indulge in spoilers!

Anyway, we go into the cinema and am totally blown away by how loud the movie is. And I come out humming some of the Ewok music.

Three years later we have returned to Melbourne on a holiday and visit my favourite department store, Myer. I always liked film music, but from the library nearest my new home outside of Rockhampton I have discovered soundtracks. From Myer I select the soundtrack cassette of Return of the Jedi as my Christmas present. It is the first one I ever own.

I love it. Next to John Williams’ score to ET: The Extraterrestrial it is my second favourite score of all time. But the release is missing a lot of music. When Return of the Jedi is released on video I record the audio on to a cassette and mentally remove the dialogue and special effects just to listen to the music.

Eventually a boxed set of the trilogy is released with more, but not all, music.

In 1997 the three Star Wars movies were rereleased as special editions. My girlfriend (now wife) and I would treat ourselves to the movies after university. When the Return of the Jedi Special Edition finally screened I felt the adventure was truly complete. It also meant that the complete music (minus a bit of background source music in Jabba’s palace and barge) was finally released.

But what I wanted more than anything was to hear that music played live.

Finally, thirty-six years later, I had that chance.

I’ve already been to the Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back in concert, both held in the new Sydney International Convention Centres (plus one in Melbourne), but for reasons unknown to me Return of the Jedi was moved to the Sydney Opera House. Conducting duties for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra were again given to the wonderfully enthusiastic Nicholas Buc.

I was seated in smack bang in the middle of the Circle, sitting three rows back, a wonderful view of the screen and the orchestra. Despite my suggestion over Twitter to the conductor earlier in the week there were no stormtrooper helmets visible as percussion instruments!

Unfortunately, the other two in my family have given up on my concert obsession and so I went alone, though I did bump into my ex-colleague Daniel and his family in the foyer.

Finally the 20th Century Fox Fanfare sounded and the movie and concert began.

There are many reasons that I rate the music to Return of the Jedi so highly, but a major one is the incredible richness of the thematic material. Old favourites are reused and rearranged and so many new motifs are introduced. Right from the start with the grand entrance of Darth Vader into the Death Star.

The Sail Barge Assault (labelled The Return of the Jedi on the original soundtrack release) is the piece I’d use as a end piece to a concert of John Williams music, so thrilling with a triumphant finale. As is the drama of Into the Trap, as the rebels find themselves block on the ground and in space by Imperial forces who knew they were coming.

Unfortunately, some of the action pieces were marred by unclear sound and a growl on the brass sections, along with the loud sound effects on screen.

Some of the gentler passages fared much better, none more so than the Death of Yoda, with his theme and the Force theme coming together so very beautifully on the strings and wind. That alone was worth the price of admission.

The second half of the concert featured, according to the conductor, 62 minutes straight of complex mostly action music. I hadn’t realised until the concert how intense it actually is and the orchestra did a phenomenal job of performing it, having to keep in perfect sync with the film the entire way.

What was missing was a choir. The deep wordless tones to accompany the Emperor were mostly carried by the strings, but some of the emotional impact of the final battle between Luke and Vader, that so brief but so powerful music, was lost. The final celebration music also sounded hollow without the singing, and that’s a pity because I love that Special Edition sequence which conveys that the Rebel Victory resonates across the whole galaxy.

Putting these quibbles aside, I am so happy that my dream finally came true. What excites me even more is that I’m booked to see it again in November in my spiritual home for Star Wars with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

But before that it’s the start of the new trilogy with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra next month.

Until then, my the Force be with you!

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