The New York Pops Soar With THE MUSIC OF STAR WARS at Carnegie Hall
Richard Termine, Carnegie Hall

Boy, the fine folks over at New York Pops and Carnegie Hall really know how to throw a party. Last Friday The Pops opened their Fortieth Season with an incredible night of music when they presented THE MUSIC OF STAR WARS, and it was a truly spectacular program of entertainment, at least, for this writer, it was. Now, I'm going to go very personal, here, because I am a Star Wars person; I am also an instrumental motion picture soundtrack person, so this program had me written all over it. It is not without a certain amount of pride that I have considered myself a film score aficionado for a few decades, now, having bought my very first soundtrack forty-four long years ago - it was the Bill Conti score to An Unmarried Woman. That purchase opened up a world of record-buying experiences for me, as my trips to the record store shifted from movie musicals and Broadway cast albums, and I began spending my weekly teenage allowance from Mom and Dad on (in this order) the soundtracks to Star Wars, Superman, and Moonraker because, at the end of the day, all life goes back to 007, The Man of Steel, Luke Skywalker, John Barry, and John Williams. So this night with The New York Pops has actually been on my calendar for months; in fact, I even missed the opening night of a close friend's new show to be there because my relationships with John Williams and Star Wars go back further than any other relationship I have, except for my parents.

Music Director and Conductor Steven Reineke is a wonder, and a real gift to the Pops, to Carnegie Hall, and to the live music industry. Not only did he curate, to perfection, the program, he spoke so eloquently and knowledgeably about the source material (without notes of any kind) that it was patently clear that he doesn't just know music, he knows Star Wars. He is a natural orator with an easy-going speech pattern, a pleasant cadence, a wonderful humor about him, and a surprising economy with words. He says just enough about the upcoming composition, then gets to the music, and when he does get to the music, his conducting style is a joy to watch, sometimes resembling dance, sometimes the moves of a sign language interpreter, and sometimes an athletic event. He is an exciting conductor to see in action. And he put a lot of attention into the curation of the music he and his magnificent orchestra presented.

The evening was arranged, not in chronological order of the creation of each composition, but in chronological order of the stories told in the Star Wars series. So the orchestra played entries from the prequels, the OG trilogy, and the sequels, with some SOLO and ROQUE ONE thrown in for good measure, in the proper chronological lineup. If a person tried to watch the movies in chronological order, they wouldn't make it past the dreadful prequels to the good stuff - they would just abandon the journey; however, listening to the compositions in this order didn't only prove enjoyable, it was an interesting experiment in the exploration of John Williams' music.

Because the three prequels (THE PHANTOM MENACE, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, and REVENGE OF THE SITH) are so far below the standard of the first three films (A NEW HOPE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and REVENGE OF THE JEDI) and the more recent franchise (THE FORCE AWAKENS, THE LAST JEDI, and THE RISE OF SKYWALKER), it is easy to ignore the prequel soundtracks and focus one's attention on the other six scores. It's easy, but it's a mistake, and that's the lesson that Steven Reineke and The New York Pops taught this shamefaced Williams devotee. Each of the album cuts Maestro Reineke chose from the prequels was an example of the Williams style of composition - the grandiosity of a Williams march, the sweeping nature of a Williams theme, and the pounding force of a Williams battle cry - and each of these first three performances from the evening was a reminder that behind those bad movies is a right and proper movie score. In the days since the concert, this fan has been, happily, revisiting those soundtracks, thanks to this presentation.

After a stop at Rogue One, with a gorgeous composition by Michael Giacchino (the only number at the concert not by John Williams, and a welcome contrast in styles), The New York Pops landed at the OG Star Wars, but not with the epic and famous "MainTitle" of A New Hope; the Maestro chose, wisely, to open the segment with "Princess Leia's Theme," one of John Williams most lush and comforting compositions of all time. By opening the portion of the evening that focused on the original trilogy with this lullaby, Reineke lulled the audience into a peaceful place of anticipation, preparing them for the incomparable thrill of hearing that Star Wars "Main Title" being played live, in real-time, by one of the greatest orchestras in the world. The electricity coursing through Carnegie Hall during the performance was off the charts - everyone was satisfied with the program (although the audience member dressed as Darth Vader may have been the happiest person in the room).

Maestro Reineke and The New York Pops are truly a joy to watch and to listen to, and there is little to no point in going number by number, movie by movie, and describing their program, especially since it was a very specific, niche night of music. Not everyone is going to be as excited as this reporter by an evening of Star Wars music - but the thing is, a working knowledge of Star Wars wasn't necessary to enjoy the concert - only a love of great orchestral artistry and composition skill. As is the case with many film scores, if the musical underscoring is observed away from the movie, as music that stands on its own, one could be listening to a symphony, one could be staging a ballet, one could just be listening to a concert or a record album. The music stands on its own. And if one is a John Williams fan, one has the added benefit of hearing familiar musical vocabulary by way of instruments that the legend loves to use in his various scores, and notes and chords that he tends to marry in his work. Strains of "Schindler's List" and "The Accidental Tourist" and "Harry Potter" could be heard throughout the concert, like little Easter Eggs that lay in wait for those in the know, to remind them that John Williams has been responsible for much more in your life than "ET." There is satisfaction in the confirmation of the genius of John Williams. Like any good composer of a film score, John Williams has a job to do: to support the story. The music he composes and records is designed to lift the cinematic experience up, to shine a light on the action, the actors, and the story. His job, as a film composer, is to not put the light on himself or his music. Hearing these compositions without the cinematic action on top of them, the listener has the chance to experience new moments, previously unobserved, while grabbing onto visuals in the mind that accompany certain musical phrases, burned into the memory. It is a delicate balancing act that John Williams has walked, as a film score composer, and Steven Reineke and co. put a brilliant spotlight on Williams' genius with their performance, one that placed some compositions firmly, at the front of this writer's mind, as album tracks to revisit because hearing these live performances of "Luke and Leia" and "The Forest Battle" from Return of the Jedi was like hearing them for the first time, and that, for a film score aficionado, is not right. These cuts from the score are luscious and gorgeous, full of nuance and imagery. It just took The New York Pops to put them in front of me, for present-day exploration.

The highlight of the evening (other than the New Hope Main Title) was, most definitely, the previously unreleased, unheard suite of four compositions for The Rise of Skywalker, which closed out the evening. Maestro Reineke worked with John Williams and The Pops Orchestra to bring the majestic and marvelous suite of music into the Carnegie Hall air with all of the style and class for which the organization has been known, lo, these many years. And on the subject of class, it has to be said that nobody puts a soloist in the spotlight the way Maestro Reineke does - each time one of the musicians made a significant contribution to the proceedings, the enormity of smile on Reineke's face, as he pointed out the soloist standing in the spotlight, was that of a proud Papa; and the moment when he asked the musicians to stand, who have been with The Pops for the full forty years of the organization's existence, was the like of which makes a boss into a Leader. From Luke and Leia to Kylo Ren, from John Williams to Steven Reineke, 1983 to 2022, this was one of many great nights of entertainment from The Pops, and a solid reflection of what makes Carnegie Hall and The New York Pops so special, and so important to us all.

Stephen Mosher, Broadway World
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