If you live long enough, you see the pop culture of your youth rise to classic status. So it is with “Star Wars.” The movie I first saw in a small theater in central Maine the summer it came out in 1977 is now ubiquitous concert-hall fare.
On seeing that both the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were presenting screenings with live orchestral accompaniment of “A New Hope” (the film we knew as the original “Star Wars”) in September, I did an informal online search and found “Star Wars” being played by at least 13 symphony orchestras this season alone, from Sydney to St. Louis. (The NSO is continuing the theme with “Return of the Jedi” next week and “The Force Awakens” Feb. 21 to 23.)
Being played in a concert hall isn’t necessarily a marker of quality. These days, you find movies of all stripes on orchestra seasons, as film music has seen its role vis-a-vis classical music transformed from poor cousin to possible salvation. But at the very least, it’s a way to get younger audiences in the door. Orchestras across the country this year are offering Harry Potter films, “The Little Mermaid,” “Ghostbusters” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” as well as movies with more sanctioned “classical” scores, such as “An American in Paris” and “West Side Story” (both coming to the BSO this spring).
What I found notable about “Star Wars,” though, is that the more I saw it, the more I realized that it really belongs in a concert hall.
I saw “A New Hope” with both the NSO and the BSO in September and found that the experience confirmed something I had started to suspect: As a classical music critic, I was clueless. That is: While I liked John Williams’s music just fine when I first saw the film at age 12, by the time I had attained legal adulthood, laden with a cargo of acquired snobbery about the superiority of Western civilization, I had learned, and bravely parroted, that “film music” was somehow beneath me. And for the next three decades, through all the sequels I didn’t see and the quartet Williams composed for the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, which I did, I continued to use “film music” as a pejorative term that, if looked at closely, probably meant to me something akin to “something which one enjoys, but shouldn’t.”
This isn’t a reflection on Williams, who is one of the most successful and popular composers of all time. It’s a reflection on me, and a reflection on the notion of the canon that so many classical music lovers unquestioningly embrace. Buying into this hierarchy seemed for years to be an entry-level requirement for the kind of life in the arts I hoped to live: initially as a Serious Writer With Intellectual Pretensions; later as a classical music critic. Film music, and populism, were easy targets. It has taken me half a lifetime to fully realize what most people knew at the first hearing: Good means good, effective means effective. Given that I’ve always made a point of embracing the best of popular fiction — Rex Stout and StephenKing and John le Carré — why was I so closed to the best of popular music, including a score that always had me, and everyone else, humming along?
It’s not that I had a conversion experience only this September. I first started to realize the merits of the Williams score when the BSO programmed Williams alongside Philip Glass, and I realized that Williams held up just fine. When my son went through a phase a couple of years ago of repeatedly playing “Darth Vader’s Theme” (a.k.a. “The Imperial March”), I kept hearing the echoes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in its vigorous dark strides. And when Alex Ross of the New Yorker wrote a piece last year comparing Williams to Wagner — the use of themes extending over an epic cycle of works — I suddenly wanted to play along.
Exuberant recycling of familiar tropes was a huge part of the success of the first “Star Wars” movie, which was part western, part World War II epic and part buddy movie. It’s fitting that the same was true of its music. Williams’s score is generous and rollicking and inscribed in the old symphonic tradition of 1940s Hollywood as surely as George Lucas’s film. It’s shot through with the colors and echoes of Central Europe, a kind of robust old-fashioned music that sets out to tell a story and deliver a punch, interweaving — as Ross points out — leitmotifs that underline the narrative, like the gentle reiteration of the main theme when Luke Skywalker first appears, the archetypal young hero.
The originality, in the music as in the film, lay in the flair with which familiar formulas were used and transformed. At the NSO in September, conductor Steven Reineke engaged the audience with verve, encouraging them to react when they heard things they liked, keeping the energy in the room at a high pitch both on and off the stage. The BSO played it straighter, more like concert music, in passive silence, and it didn’t work as well, or sound as good.
Having fun and enjoying yourself used to be part of what orchestras were about. Today, there’s a built-in tension as they push to bill themselves as gatekeepers of high seriousness and great art on the one hand, and desperately try to reach a wider audience on the other (orchestras do, after all, have to sell several thousand tickets to each program). This leads to an unfortunate compartmentalization: My original view of film music as a lesser genre is reinforced by having movies plopped onto orchestra seasons as crowd-pleasers. If you really want to make a case for film music as part of your repertoire, couldn’t you also offer more thoughtfully curated programs than the kind of compendiums — “The Music of Oz,” “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” — that travel from one orchestra’s pops program to another? Simply playing Harry Potter movies seems akin to, well, playing Beethoven’s Fifth once again — yet another symptom of the creeping impoverishment of the repertoire of many orchestral seasons, reaching for the common denominator of mass appeal.
The problems of orchestras, though, have little to do with the music itself. My real lesson in learning to admire John Williams lay in recognizing yet again the degree to which many of us who love the arts, both popular and “fine,” live in silos of our own making, affixing labels that have nothing to do with the music and impede our enjoyment of it. This is as true for classical fans, looking down their nose in horror at so-called pop, as it is for fans of indie-rock who are put off by the supposed elitism of the concert hall. Can playing “Star Wars” help people lose all of the “shoulds” and preconceptions? Perhaps not. But you can still go and hear it, and let yourself enjoy it.
The NSO performs “Return of the Jedi” Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. $34-$119. kennedy-center.org.