Darth Vader, Storm Troopers, The Millenium Falcon… and the NZSO. Sounds unlikely? Don’t judge it until you’ve heard it.


Film with live Orchestra

Music by John Williams
Presented by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
NZSO Associate Conductor Hamish McKeich

TSB Bank Arena, Wellington Waterfront

6:30pm  Sunday 28th April 2019

Important note from reviewers Lindis Taylor and Peter Mechen:

 Star Wars isn’t the usual cup of tea for Middle C – or its visionary but old-fashioned reviewers.

So, from Middle C’s Intergalactic critical arm, Cosmic Comparisons, we sent two of our young people along to tell us what they thought.

 Jeremy Mechen and Julia Wells report in! – (materialise….reconstitute…..welcome!)


What is The Empire Strikes Back?

The Empire Strikes Back is the second film in the original Star Wars trilogy. It continues the story of the conflict between the evil Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance/the good guys. Fun fact: it is the second highest grossing sequel of all time. The score was composed and conducted by John Williams and was played on the film soundtrack by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The NZSO playing Star Wars? How does that work?

The screening/concert was held in the TSB Bank arena on the Wellington waterfront. There was a large screen at the front with a projection of the film, then underneath was a stage with the orchestra. As the film played on the screen above, the orchestra played the score. There were recordings used for the voices (plus subtitles on-screen) and also for more unusual sound-effects, such as blasters and lightsabres.

What did you like?

Julia Wells: Firstly, I loved the enthusiasm and energy of the audience. The TSB arena is a huge venue, but the place was crowded – there was barely an empty seat to be seen. The audience was mainly young/middle aged and absolutely thrilled to be there. We saw lots of big grins, Star Wars T-shirts and even a glow-in-the-dark lightsabre. Someone whooped the first time Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) appeared on screen.

The orchestra was fantastic – it was magical when the title caption started scrolling and they began to play the iconic Star Wars theme. The highlight for me was the imperial theme music (the musical riff for the bad guys), which recurs throughout the film. It had a drama and richness that you just don’t get with a cinema screening.

In general my favourite bits were the climatic moments, particularly the fights scenes (for example, the Alliance fighter pilots’ defence against the Imperial Walkers). However, the softer and sweeter bits of the score were also lovely – the scene when Luke Skywalker starts to explore the planet of Dagobarth stood out for me.

Jeremy Mechen: The takeaway for me was the enormous potential that these type of performances have. When I heard about the orchestra’s plans to play the score of Star Wars live I knew it would be a popular event. Star Wars’ position in the cultural zeitgeist spans generations, and so walking into the packed arena of diehard fans didn’t surprise me. What did, was how inarguably well the organisers and the musicians pulled it off. As the iconic yellow on black text scrolled across the screen the music burst into life to a cheering crowd. The movie had begun.

Merely five minutes had passed and I was enthralled. The camera panned over the otherworldly vistas as the music rose to a crescendo, and for a couple of minutes the subpar quality of the screen didn’t matter – I was completely transported to another world.  It also didn’t hurt that the environment shots are a part of the film that has aged much more gracefully than certain other aspects, like the visual effects.

Overall the experience was undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. The NZSO did an amazing job in demonstrating the unparalleled strength of a live orchestra. What might have otherwise been background music was transformed into a gripping soundscape that rose and fell throughout the movie, and iconic moments like the imperial march were brought to life in a way I’d never heard before. I have no doubt John Williams would have been more than happy with the performance.

What didn’t work so well for you?

JM: This is not exactly a negative, but I think at some points it almost became too cohesive an experience. The orchestra did such an impeccable job of synchronizing with the action; and Star Wars is such an engaging film, that I occasionally had to remind myself that I was hearing the soundtrack live, and not just listening to a very impressive recording.

JW: This is not a comment on the NZSO’s playing, but some parts of the film have not aged well. It was first released in 1980s, and post #MeToo, some of Han Solo’s interactions (read: harassment) of Leia now appear more creepy than charming. It’s certainly a product of its time. However, there’s still a lot to love in the film – it’s a classic for a reason.

Would you go again?

JW: Yes, definitely. I think this is an awesome thing for the NZSO – not to try to attract a wider audience to their classical concerts (I don’t think it will), but because on its own terms it’s a great performance. I hope in the future they will consider trying out other film/TV scores. Game of Thrones, anyone? I’d be there.

JM: Without a doubt. The worlds of movies and video games have so much to offer in terms of beautiful orchestral scores, it’s a shame they’re often overlooked compared to more traditional offerings. It’s not about subtracting from the culture of classical music that already exists, it’s about exploring the huge amount of genuine talent that exists in the world today.