Outside New Brunswick, NJ’s State Theatre this Sunday, February 9, 2020 afternoon, a troop of Imperial Stormtroopers and other characters from the Star Wars universe march up and down George Street to the delight of passersby.
When a brave youngster asks to take a picture with one ostensibly evil Stormtrooper, the character graciously agrees and poses while deadpanning in a robotic voice, “Capturing electronic image.”
The reason for all of this intergalactic merriment in the heart of Central New Jersey? A screening of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi accompanied by a live performance of the soundtrack by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maestro Constantine Kitsopoulos.
Out on George Street, we chat with Joseph Clukies of New Brunswick who represents Devaron Base, an organization of volunteers who create and appear in costumes of such Star Wars heroes as Jedi Knights, Rebel Pilots, Princesses, and Wookiees. According to Clukies, a second group represented here today is the 501st Legion, an international organization which is dedicated to the construction and wearing of screen-accurate replicas of Sith Lords, Clone Troopers, Imperial Stormtroopers, and other Star Wars villains.
Explains Clukies, both groups are “made up entirely of volunteers who appear at birthday parties and other functions in return for donations made to such children’s charities as Robert Wood Johnson’s Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and more,” adding, “Today, we’re excited to be a part of the NJSO’s live performance of the soundtrack to Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.”
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 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 a communal aesthetic experience.
As we make our way inside the historic State Theatre auditorium, 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.
Here, we take a moment to chat with several audience members who share their reasons for attending today’s presentation.
First, we chat with Paula from Newtown, PA, who came to this afternoon’s matinee with her 12-year-old son, Marcus.
Explains Paula, “My son and I are both Star Wars fans. Marcus plays the saxophone, but he’s never seen a live orchestra, so I thought this would be a good way to expose him to live orchestral music,” before adding, “We both love the music to this movie, so we thought it would be a fun experience we could share together.”
Next, we chat with Debbie from Bridgewater, who is here with her husband, Matthew. Reveals Debbie, “Matthew is a big fan of orchestral music and we’ve been to the symphony many times, but this is our first movie which is accompanied by an orchestra.” Explaining, “I’ve been looking for something like this since my friend saw a symphony concert of movie music at Lincoln Center and told me about it,” Debbie concludes by suggesting, “It seemed like it would be ‘double fun’ getting to hear a live symphony orchestra while watching a great movie at the same time.”
Lastly, we chat with Isabella from Howell, who reveals, “I’m here because I saw both Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back with the NJSO,” confessing, “The first time I came, I was so amazed, my jaw dropped for a full ten minutes!”
Recalling, “I played the clarinet in band when I was in school,” Isabella relates, “so I’m super impressed by all the hard work the NJSO members put into making these performances so memorable,” before concluding, “Besides seeing any upcoming Star Wars movies the NSJO presents, my plan is to see additional movies the NJSO accompanies, as well.”
The members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra take the stage and begin to tune their instruments. Soon, the theater completely darkens and the orchestra rises as the audience applauds for the entrance of conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos who graciously bows for the sold-out crowd.
Kitsopoulos raises his baton and drums roll and trumpets sound as the 20th Century Studios logo appears on the screen. Audience members applaud as the orchestra’s powerful sound accompanies the iconic yellow-on-black Star Wars logo which completely illuminates the display.
A swell in dynamics adds to the on-screen drama as the audience first sees the villainous Darth Vader, all dressed in black, and some audience members even begin to applaud. The iconic Vader theme features French horns flowing into lilting strings as the audience cheers for the endearing droids, C-3PO and R2-D2. Much applause ensues again when the beautiful Princess Leia saves Milennium Falcon pilot Han Solo and kisses him to the backdrop of a romantic theme.
The orchestra’s magic is particularly effective in a scene where young Jedi Luke Skywalker is dropped into a dungeon and is about to be eaten by a reptilian beast known as a Rancor. Enhanced by the sawing of strings and the call of the brass, orchestral woodwinds and percussion instruments add excitement to the moment as they rhythmically punctuate the action.
The crowd cheers when they hear Jedi master Yoda’s uplifting theme, and humorous music flows when Princess Leia meets a cute and furry Ewok for the first time. The audience also heartily cheers for the NJSO musicians when they take a bow before a short intermission.
During the break, young concertgoers in the audience are invited up to the front of the stage to listen to several NJSO players talk about their instruments. The children are enamored as a bassoonist explains how his large instrument is played, taking off the double reed and making it sound like a duck before putting it back on the instrument to produce a beautiful sound.
Next, a concert pianist chats with the youngsters about playing the celesta, a keyboard instrument which she describes as sounding like “fairy bells,” and a violinist explains to older youth how the orchestra members wear a special set of earphones during the performance that presents a “click track” to help them and the conductor stay together with the film.
Lastly, woodwind player Kathleen Nestor demonstrates the orchestra’s smallest instrument — the piccolo — to the enraptured youngsters.
When we ask Nestor what she enjoys most about playing performances like today’s Star Wars: Return of the Jedi score, she responds, “This concert is really fun!” before explaining, “What I like the best is the audience — they laugh and applaud — so it seems like a special event.” Acknowledging, “The music is hard — when it was originally recorded, it was done in bits and pieces, but we have to play the whole score in real time in a single sitting,” Nestor concludes by asserting, “That’s what makes it so challenging, but also so much fun!”
Act II begins with the members of the NJSO performing their music without any on-screen action. Here, the instrumentalists present the themes of the various film characters, the pristine sound filling the theater as it highlights the grandeur and nuance of John Williams’ inventive score. The crowd happily cheers for the live musicians before being drawn back to the screen once the film action continues.
The score swells with emotion and melancholy as Luke informs Princess Leia that she is his sister.
Timpani drums roll, cymbals crash, and low brass are spotlighted during Darth Vader’s ominous return.
The woodwinds and strings make unearthly sounds as Luke and Vader battle with red and green-colored light sabers, and staccato instrumentation underscores Lando Calrissian’s piloting of the Millennium Falcon as it comes to the rescue to defeat the Death Star.
Lastly, percussion and shakers echo the rhythm of a celebration scene complete with fireworks in which everyone including Luke, Leia, and Han Solo — in addition to Jedi Knights Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker, in spiritual form — are reunited.
At the end of the film, the credits roll as the orchestra continues to fill the auditorium with glorious sound — the horns shining, the violins singing, and the ensemble ending with a triumphant timpani roll and crescendo. By the conclusion, the audience is on its feet cheering for the NJSO as Conductor Kitsopoulos takes a bow and then recognizes various soloists and sections in the orchestra by having them stand to sustained cheers and applause.
As audience members filter out of the State Theatre auditorium, we take a moment to chat with several in the crowd who share their opinions of today’s performance.
Declares Jason from Old Bridge, “I’m a Star Wars fan, and I can tell you that the NSJO orchestra did an excellent job! To be able to reconnect with Star Wars in this way, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it — it’s absolutely an enhanced experience that shouldn’t be missed.”
Remarks Caitlin from Old Bridge, “I loved it! The orchestra blended so seamlessly with the film, sometimes I forgot they were there.” Asserting, “You don’t notice the musical score in the same way until you hear it live,” Caitlin explains, “As a result, you don’t realize how important the music is — how impactful it is — and how recognizable it is,” before concluding, “Now, we can’t wait to see the next movie the NJSO presents.”
Matthew from Bridgewater agrees, adding, “It was as interesting as I expected it to be — the orchestra truly added another dimension to the movie,” noting, “I really enjoyed coming to the theater to hear the live music,” before adding, “and it was really surprising to hear all of the applause the audience gave to the various characters.”
Lastly, we chat with Paula, the mom we met before the show who brought her son, Marcus, to experience his first live orchestral concert. Concludes Paula, “It was an excellent adventure for both of us — we give it ‘two thumbs up’ — and we can’t wait to be here in April when the NJSO does Star Wars: The Force Awakens!”
To learn more about upcoming programs by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at New Brunswick’s’ State Theatre — including Beethoven’s Birthday Bash: The Piano Concertos: Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 2, 3, and 4 on March 22, Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony on April 5, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens on April 19 — please go to njsymphony.org or click on stnj.org.
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