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The Empire Strikes Back in Concert with the NJSO LIVE! at the State Theatre
By Spotlight Central
originally published: 01/19/2019
Some of our favorite childhood memories growing up at the Jersey Shore involved going to our town’s grand old movie palace, The Community Theater, in Toms River. Built with colonial architecture and featuring large white columns in the front, paned glass windows in the lobby, a circular brick walk from the sidewalk to the box office, and a white picket fence which enclosed a lawn and a flower bed, this local gem presented the latest Hollywood films. For kids like us back in the 1960’s, that meant pictures like Mary Poppins, Cinderella, The Love Bug, and Flipper.
In those days, there were no Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming services, no Redbox DVD rentals, and even no Blockbuster VHS video stores. If you wanted to enjoy a movie of your choice, you went with your friends or family to the local movie house. There, you could engage in the communal experience of watching, laughing, cheering, and/or sitting on the edge of your seat for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, along with hundreds of other like-minded individuals from your area.
Over the past few years, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has sparked a revolution in the presentation of state-of-the art movie-watching experiences with a series of screenings of such Hollywood gems as An American in Paris, E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and more — complete with live music! At these extraordinary events, the NJSO performs the score live as the film plays on a large screen above the orchestra. All the original dialogue and sound effects from the movie can be heard via the house PA system, but the magic really happens when the living, breathing NJSO musicians play the musical soundtrack, giving it wings and serving it up front and center to lovers of both films and orchestral music as a part of the communal aesthetic experience.
On Sunday, January 6, 2019, the NJSO presented the latest in their series of such performances — a screening of the classic 1980 film, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — with the NJSO performing John Williams’ legendary score live at New Brunswick, NJ’s State Theatre.
As we make our way inside the auditorium of this historic venue, we’re immediately taken back to our childhoods as we smell the fresh popcorn and see scores of friends and families taking their seats, all getting ready to experience today’s sold-out performance together in this warm and inviting setting.
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The musicians of the NJSO take the stage with their instruments before the lights dim and an announcer states, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the State Theatre for the NJSO’s performance of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert!”
The audience cheers as the concertmaster enters and points to the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back logo projected on the screen above him. They continue to cheer and applaud as today’s conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos, takes the podium and announces, “It’s going to be an exciting afternoon filled with the glorious sounds of John Williams’ score!”
In referring to the talented musicians of the NJSO, Kitsopulous exclaims, “Everybody up on this stage is a rock star,” before explaining to the crowd, “Whenever your favorite character or a dramatic scene appears, don’t hesitate to cheer or boo!”
The large screen above the orchestra goes blank for a brief moment as drums roll and the audience sees the infamous scrolling text introducing “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” while the iconic Star Wars anthem stirs the audience!
As the film opens, the sound of strings floats above the brass and woodwinds to create an odyssey of living and breathing sounds to accompany the images of space craft and unusual creatures that appear on the screen. The sound is stunning in this acoustically superior concert hall and the score played with precision by this enormously talented cadre of musicians.
The audience erupts with cheers for the first hero we recognize — Luke Skywalker — the orchestra adding a layer of mystery, anticipation, and suspense when Luke is captured but escapes from a hairy snow monster!
The crowd also cheers for the appearances of other Star Wars heroes — Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, droids C3PO and R2D2, and the ghost of Obi Wan Kanobi — but happily boos for the evil villain Darth Vader as French horns echo the ominous Vader Death Star theme.
As the film progresses, Kitsopoulus masterfully conducts the orchestra, keeping time and dynamics in sync with the on-screen action taking place above him. While viewing a computer screen which projects blinking bars and light flashes along with the film, Kitsopoulis uses his baton and musical expertise to make this spectacular and complex John Williams’ score come to life!
The music swirls and swells with excitement as Han Solo navigates his Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field.
It provides a sense of playful mystery when Luke meets Yoda on the swamp planet, Degobah.
It also underscores a tender moment with a wistful love theme for Princess Leia’s and Han Solo’s first kiss.
During intermission, we take a moment to chat with several members of the audience who share their impressions of the presentation thus far.
Exclaims Kelly from Bridgewater, “I’m really enjoying it! I’m impressed by how it sounds like the original soundtrack, but played by a live orchestra,” before suggesting, “It’s kind of like reverse karaoke.”
Paul from Bridgewater agrees, explaining, “I picked this concert, not just because of the movie, but because of this live orchestra.”
We also chat with Dennis from Long Valley, here with his wife and three children.
Acknowledges Dennis, “I bought these tickets as birthday and holiday gifts for my family; I thought it would be a unique experience. We’ve seen the Star Wars movies probably 15 times, and I’m completely overwhelmed at how much the orchestra plays throughout the film. When you watch it at home, you just don’t realize how integral the music is,” before concluding, “It’s quite an enlightening experience being here — the NJSO is spot-on. ”
Dennis’ son, Jack, 15, concurs remarking, “I like the addition of the live orchestra,” before declaring, “I’d like to see all three Star Wars movies — A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi — with the live orchestra, and all one right after the other!”
As intermission continues, the audience is invited to come down to the foot of the stage to chat with several of the talented musicians of the NJSO. While members of the crowd are treated to live demonstrations of musical instruments including a piccolo and a bassoon, others ask questions about how a perfomance like this is put together.
Here, we take a moment to speak with NJSO violinist, Naomi Youngstein, who discloses, “This score is very difficult for everyone up here,” before disclosing, “My violin part alone is 90 pages!”
“We do a five-hour rehearsal and then four performances,” explains Youngstein, “and everyone in the orchestra wears an earpiece that has a click track with a metronome to help keep us together.”
When asked about her reaction to the NJSO’s performances of The Empire Strikes Back in Concert, Youngstein replies, “We love hearing all the cheering and applause — audiences have been crazy happy for this show!”
Act II begins as Kitsopoulis takes to the podium and conducts a John Williams’ overture to continued audience cheers and applause.
Darth Vader’s theme features the brass section with the forceful beating of drums which dynamically envelopes the theater.
As Luke trains with Yoda, yet fails while trying to resurrect his submerged jet fighter, the crowd enthusiastically bursts into applause when Yoda declares, “Do or do not — there is no ‘try!’” The music swells as Yoda uses the Force to do the impossible — raise the fighter from the swamp — proving to Luke and the audience that if everything is connected, the Force will be with you!
As the musicians continue to connect with the film, they create an artistic force that makes this experience magical for audience members who applaud for their first glimpse of Lando Calrissian, swoon when Princess Leia says “I love you” to Han, and cheer when the Millennium Falcon narrowly escapes Vader’s Imperial storm troopers.
A high point of the film is the famous lightsaber scene between Vader and Luke, the orchestra’s low and ominous music highlighting all of the action.
As Vader tries to entice Luke to join the power of the Dark Side, he reveals the iconic words, “I am your father!” before Luke drops into the abyss and is bravely rescued by Lando and Leia.
At the end of the film, the credits roll as the orchestra continues to fill the theater with glorious sound — the horns shining, the violins singing, and the ensemble ending with a triumphant timpani roll and crescendo. At this point, the audience is on its feet cheering for the NJSO as Conductor Kitsopouluis takes a bow and then recognizes various soloists and sections in the orchestra by having them stand to continued whistles and applause!
As audience members make their way out of the theater, we chat with several in the crowd who share their reactions to this dynamic performance.
Luke, 13, from Somerville, tells us, “This was incredible! I’ve never been to anything like this — it’s so different from any Broadway show I’ve ever seen.”
Conceding, “I’m a big Star Wars fan,” Luke adds, “Seeing this film played with the live music is something you just can’t find anywhere,” before concluding, “Now, I’d like to see the other Star Wars films with the orchestra.”
Says Liz from Somerville, “I’m overwhelmed by this experience! I knew it was going to be good, but I’m so impressed and so moved by it. The music brings the entire experience to a whole new level.”
Lastly, we chat Nora, Kristen, and John — members of a family from East Brunswick.
Comments mom, Nora, “The Empire Strikes Back with the NJSO was very exciting! We saw the original film — Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope — with the live orchestra, and we really enjoyed it,” before noting, “and the audiences’ reactions make the entire experience even more thrilling!”
Daughter Kristen — a college student — says, “I loved The Empire Strikes Back — and I wish I could have been here for the original film,” before her dad, John, remarks, “If the NJSO ever does Return of the Jedi, we’ll be here!”
After adding, “This was a phenomenal and powerful experience — you could feel the music vibrating in your body,” John asks, “Did you notice that not one person left during the movie credits? That never happens!”
Continuing, “The audience was listening to the music and enjoying the beautiful sound,” John concludes by declaring, “They were giving the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra their due for an amazing performance!”
To learn more about upcoming programs by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at New Brunswick’s’ State Theatre — including The Eternal with Zhang, Trifanov, and the NJSO on January 26, Debussy Masterworks on March 10, and Mary Poppins in Concert with the NJSO on April 4 — please go to njsymphony.org or click on stnj.org.