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Music

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra brings the music of 'Star Wars' alive

| Tuesday, July 10, 2018, 4:36 p.m.
This publicity film image provided by 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation shows, from left, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in a scene from the 'Star Wars' movie released by 20th Century-Fox in 1977.
This publicity film image provided by 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation shows, from left, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in a scene from the 'Star Wars' movie released by 20th Century-Fox in 1977.

At last, the force of John Williams' music for “Star Wars: A New Hope” is gaining the incomparable impact of live orchestral performance.

The music won an Oscar after the film was released in 1977 and has remained immensely popular and influential ever since. And while excerpts have been staples at Pops concerts for many years, this season orchestras all over the world are performing Williams' complete score for the first time.

Francesco Lecce-Chong will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in performances of “Star Wars: A New Hope” on July 12 and 13 at Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall.

A few years ago, when Lecce-Chong was working with Williams, he asked when the film would be available for live orchestral performance and was told the project was in the works. The necessary preparation included not only removing the orchestral soundtrack but also creating a special version of the film with visual cues for the conductor as well as a click track.

Lecce-Chong, 31, says he's a perfect conductor for the show because he's such a fan of the music and has so often conducted excerpts from it, such as the Main Title music and Princess Leia's theme. A native of Denver, he is also music director of the Eugene Symphony in Oregon, with which he will conduct “Star Wars” in concert in December.

The symphony's associate conductor says “Star Wars” is a perfect example of the composer's genius. Among the techniques Williams uses is to employ the themes for the various characters in a way akin to composer Richard Wagner's “leitmotifs” in his four-opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelungs.” Coincidentally, Pittsburgh Festival Opera is presenting the first opera in that cycle, “Das Rheingold,” on July 13, 15 and 21.

Williams' score is tightly constructed, Lecce-Chong says.

“Every time a theme comes back it's altered. It's not just background music,” he says. “The music has all of Wagner's complexity. Even before a character comes back on screen, you'll hear his theme already in the music.”

For all his familiarity with the film, Lecce-Chong made many discoveries when he finally saw the entire full score.

“Directors will lower the music whenever they want, not just for dialogue,” he notes. Some of Williams' downplayed music is “edgy and modern.” He has also been struck in his study by how much other music Williams' channels in “Star Wars,” including not only Wagner but also Gustav Holst's “The Planets” and especially Igor Stravinsky's “The Firebird.”

Lecce-Chong has conducted many performances of classic films with live orchestral accompaniment. The special conductor's version of films have a row of vertical color bars moving across the bottom of the screen, akin to video games. He doesn't like to use the click track because he likes a little more freedom for spontaneity in appropriate passages.

The conductor will conclude his tenure in Pittsburgh with an all-Brahms program on July 18 at Heinz Hall. In September, he will become music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony in California.

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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