Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Force Awakens in Concert with the SSO


I have a dark secret to reveal. I am of the First Order.

Last year I was the first to order a 2019 subscription with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Darkness fell over Hogwarts, I saw the Empire defeated in Return of the Jedi and a new Empire reborn in The Force Awakens.


Now that I've heard the three original Star Wars movies in live concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, how does the first of the reawakened movies fare?

Awesomely well!

As the conductor Nicholas Buc said in his introduction, with the release of The Rise of Skywalker, John Williams' contributions to the Star Wars universe will have spanned 42 years (the answer to life, the universe and everything). Though the movies retain some common musical themes across that time, Williams' style has also evolved.

For me, I guess his nineteen-eighties period is the one I identify most with, but it also means that his newer compositions have a freshness about them.


We start with the familiar with the famous Star Wars opening theme, taking us back to that galaxy far, far away. Then we are transported to a new world, Jakku, along with some new Stormtroopers.

The flashes of older themes, the Rebel Fanfare escaping in the Millenium Falcon, Han Solo and the Princess and most of all, The Force Theme, each evoke memories and feelings that Star Wars transcends mere movies to have become part of the fabric of life.

But there is plenty of new music representing new characters, planets and the evolution of the two sides. Rey's theme, is simply beautiful, its components finding many forms throughout the movie. Kylo Ren's music is very effective performed live, despite its simplicity.

Where the music shines most of all is in the action sequences, with the TIE fighter escape and the March of the Resistance especially thrilling and well suited to the concert hall. It was difficult to watch the action on the screen with all the motion in the orchestra itself.

The music is often allowed to shine in the movie and not be overshadowed by dialogue and special effects. The orchestra was spot on tonight. It was astonishing to see how many elements of the orchestra were performing at any one time, but that is John Williams for you. I kept hearing new elements to each piece, different instruments shining through.

Unlike the original trilogy, no complete edition of the score has ever been released, with some pieces on the soundtrack concert arrangements. Even the final credits differs, from lacking Princess Leia's theme to the concluding bars. That gave another sense of freshness to tonight's performance and meant that I wasn't comparing it to the recordings.

I came out of the Sydney Opera House's concert hall entirely satisfied with the SSO's performance of The Force Awakens. That should conclude my attendance at this year's SSO's performances, though I've got one more booking for Return of the Jedi with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in a couple of months.

I have definitely felt an awakening in the Force and I can't wait to hear the Last Jedi and the Rise of Skywalker in future! Pity the SSO isn't offering subscription packages for next year.



If you want to get an appreciation of the music in the Force Awakens and other movies I really recommend the Art of the Score podcast, featuring tonight's conductor Nicholas Buc, along with Andrew Pogson of the MSO and Dr Dan Golding, a lecturer and composer himself. Not only do they explain each score in a highly accessible manner, there's a lot of fun to be had along the way!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Return of the Jedi in Concert with the SSO


It's October 1983 and third and final instalment of the Star Wars trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, has just been released in Melbourne. The queues for the cinema stretch around the corner of a city block. Will Han Solo be rescued? What will happen between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader now he's been revealed as his father. Can the Rebel Alliance defeat the might of the evil Empire?

I'm nine years old and unfortunately I already know the answers to those questions because I bought that darn picture book of the movie before its release. I really wanted to know who that cool Biker Scout figurine I bought is.



That taught me not to indulge in spoilers!

Anyway, we go into the cinema and am totally blown away by how loud the movie is. And I come out humming some of the Ewok music.

Three years later we have returned to Melbourne on a holiday and visit my favourite department store, Myer. I always liked film music, but from the library nearest my new home outside of Rockhampton I have discovered soundtracks. From Myer I select the soundtrack cassette of Return of the Jedi as my Christmas present. It is the first one I ever own.

I love it. Next to John Williams' score to ET: The Extraterrestrial it is my second favourite score of all time. But the release is missing a lot of music. When Return of the Jedi is released on video I record the audio on to a cassette and mentally remove the dialogue and special effects just to listen to the music.

Eventually a boxed set of the trilogy is released with more, but not all, music.

In 1997 the three Star Wars movies were rereleased as special editions. My girlfriend (now wife) and I would treat ourselves to the movies after university. When the Return of the Jedi Special Edition finally screened I felt the adventure was truly complete. It also meant that the complete music (minus a bit of background source music in Jabba's palace and barge) was finally released.

But what I wanted more than anything was to hear that music played live.

Finally, thirty-six years later, I had that chance.

I've already been to the Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back in concert, both held in the new Sydney International Convention Centres (plus one in Melbourne), but for reasons unknown to me Return of the Jedi was moved to the Sydney Opera House. Conducting duties for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra were again given to the wonderfully enthusiastic Nicholas Buc.

I was seated in smack bang in the middle of the Circle, sitting three rows back, a wonderful view of the screen and the orchestra. Despite my suggestion over Twitter to the conductor earlier in the week there were no stormtrooper helmets visible as percussion instruments!

Unfortunately, the other two in my family have given up on my concert obsession and so I went alone, though I did bump into my ex-colleague Daniel and his family in the foyer.

Finally the 20th Century Fox Fanfare sounded and the movie and concert began.

There are many reasons that I rate the music to Return of the Jedi so highly, but a major one is the incredible richness of the thematic material. Old favourites are reused and rearranged and so many new motifs are introduced. Right from the start with the grand entrance of Darth Vader into the Death Star.

The Sail Barge Assault (labelled The Return of the Jedi on the original soundtrack release) is the piece I'd use as a end piece to a concert of John Williams music, so thrilling with a triumphant finale. As is the drama of Into the Trap, as the rebels find themselves block on the ground and in space by Imperial forces who knew they were coming.

Unfortunately, some of the action pieces were marred by unclear sound and a growl on the brass sections, along with the loud sound effects on screen.

Some of the gentler passages fared much better, none more so than the Death of Yoda, with his theme and the Force theme coming together so very beautifully on the strings and wind. That alone was worth the price of admission.

The second half of the concert featured, according to the conductor, 62 minutes straight of complex mostly action music. I hadn't realised until the concert how intense it actually is and the orchestra did a phenomenal job of performing it, having to keep in perfect sync with the film the entire way.

What was missing was a choir. The deep wordless tones to accompany the Emperor were mostly carried by the strings, but some of the emotional impact of the final battle between Luke and Vader, that so brief but so powerful music, was lost. The final celebration music also sounded hollow without the singing, and that's a pity because I love that Special Edition sequence which conveys that the Rebel Victory resonates across the whole galaxy.

Putting these quibbles aside, I am so happy that my dream finally came true. What excites me even more is that I'm booked to see it again in November in my spiritual home for Star Wars with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

But before that it's the start of the new trilogy with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra next month.

Until then, my the Force be with you!


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in Concert



Have you ever heard of a bloogle resonator before? Me neither, but I counted at least six of the whirly tubes in action tonight as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonic Choir performed Nicholas Hooper's score to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

We are now in the territory of Harry Potter movies I've seen only once before. They are dark now, more difficult to watch as people you care about die. Likewise, this score is one I am less familiar with. I recently discovered it languishing in an obscure folder on my music repository, not having it made it on to my phone.

That wasn't always the case, as I do remember listening to it a decade ago last month, sitting in London's Heathrow Airport on my first international trip by myself. But that is another story.

Being less familiar with the story meant it was often difficult to focus on the music over the movie. Hooper's score still shone through, especially the choral In Noctem, the gentle harps of romance, the festive Fireworks music and, of course, the thrill of Quidditch.

You can spot the bloogle resonators as the Death Eaters converge on the Wesley's home.

Nicholas Buc's conducting was, as ever, superlative and fun to watch in itself. I'm also enjoying his contributions, along with Andrew Pogson and Dan Golding, in the Art of the Score podcasts.

That concludes the Harry Potter performances for 2019 with only Alexandre Desplat's scores to the two Deathly Hallows movies remaining. Next time it's back to the Star Wars universe!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A John Williams Journey

Inspired by Dan Golding's John Williams presentation on ABC Classic I've put together a selection of ten tracks to take you on a musical journey through the world of John Williams.

These aren't necessarily his greatest his greatest hits or his most familiar themes. Instead I've pulled together ten of his lesser known pieces to illustrate the diversity and emotional power of Williams' music.


1. Journey to the Island (Jurassic Park)

We begin our journey in prehistoric times, or at least a recreation of them, as we fly to Isla Nublar and Jurassic Park. That first sight of the dinosaurs on the island has to rank as one of the greatest moments in cinema and John Williams' noble theme never fails to bring a tear to the eye.

2. The Olympic Spirit (1988 Olympics)

A long journey requires endurance and spirit. Williams has composed music for four Olympic games, but this is my favourite. I remember camping in outback Central Queensland with only a radio to keep abreast of the Seoul Olympics and each broadcast would be introduced with The Olympic Spirit. I didn't know that John Williams composed it at the time, but it's little wonder I fell in love with its rousing theme.

3. A Window to the Past (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

Our journey now takes us to a magical place, but one with a dark history. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was my favourite movie of the series, no doubt in part due to John Williams' wondrous score. This haunting theme is one of many in this episode, as Harry and his teachers recall Harry's murdered parents. The Prisoner of Azkaban was the only movie shown on our first flight to Europe and the soundtrack represented the magic as we travelled through countries with their own dark pasts.

4. The Book Thief (The Book Thief)

Staying in Europe's past here, The Book Thief conveys both the horror and the humanity and hope of a young adoptee in Germany during the Second World War. Though famous for his big scores and grand marches, John Williams has composed many delicate scores for much smaller movies, and The Book Thief is a fine example of this. I first watched the movie on another flight, this time to Japan, with the score now reminding me of flying 40,000 feet above the ocean on a sunny day, so far away from the cold grey Germany portrayed in the movie.

5. Becoming a Geisha (Memories of a Geisha)

We've now landed in Japan, my favourite country other than my own! I believe that Memories of a Geisha was one of John Williams' finest scores in recent memory, combining Western melodic sensibilities with a genuine Japanese sound. Becoming a Geisha propels me along the incredibly scenic railway line through the mountains to historic Takayama, the whole soundtrack capturing the beauty of the country in spring.

6. Midway March (Midway)

John Williams is the master of the march. This is one of his lesser known ones, but one I have a lot of fondness for as the US Navy goes into battle with the Japanese aircraft carriers in a pivotal battle of World War Two.

7. Toy Planes, Home and Hearth (Empire of the Sun)

Staying in the Pacific Conflict of World War Two, this time we follow the story of a young English lad growing up as a prisoner of war when the Japanese invade China. This particular piece interpolates Chopin's Mazurka Opus 17 No 4, but is beautiful on its own if you can get your hands on the special edition release of the soundtrack. 

I first heard this music as a new release on ABC Classic FM and it immediately evoked strong imagery. I then borrowed J.G. Ballard's book from the library and it too was powerfully visual. It was with great surprise that I saw those same pictures in Steven Spielberg's screen adaptation

8. Parade of the Slave Children (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

The journey moves to India with the rousing struggle of child slaves freeing themselves from an evil cult. Musically I always thought that the first three Indiana Jones movies followed those of the Star Wars movies, with the second introducing a number of memorably great themes.

9. ET and Me (E.T. The Extraterrestrial)

After a long journey one can get rather homesick. This time we are not the travellers, but the ones meeting a traveller from very, very far away. This particular piece captures the wistful sadness I felt at living so far away from my previous home in Melbourne. Everyone knows the Flying Theme from ET, but the movie has so much great music, this being a concert arrangement of the relationship between ET and Elliot. Just to listen to this soundtrack is an amazing emotional journey in itself. 

10. The Return of the Jedi (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)

Finally our journey comes to a close in the most triumphant way possible. No John Williams journey would be complete without Star Wars, the movie that introduced me to film music a long time ago, in a city far, far away.

I could easily have chosen a hundred more songs to include in my list, but each of these pieces is a soundtrack to my own emotional and musical journey through life. I hope that you have enjoyed the list and find your own joy in the music of John Williams.

Spotify playlist (Hopefully this works, as it's my first time using Spotify!)


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Sutherland Shire Relay for Life 2019


Over 8 hours of walking, more than 60,000 steps, 30 minutes sleep and two very blistered feet.

This year I joined the Dark Fire Fitness team in the Cancer Council's Sutherland Shire Relay For Life to raise funds for cancer research and treatment.

After Alex's tennis tournament I arrived at midday to Don Lucas Reserve at Cronulla to find most of the other members already there. We had a simple marquee and small tent setup. The previous day I'd spent the afternoon and evening deep frying cekodok pisang (banana fritters), karaage chicken and inchi kabin (Malaysian spiced chicken) to share amongst the team.


The relay involves maintaining a constant walking (or running for some) relay along the 400 metres track for 24 hours.

I preferred doing the late night shifts after 10 pm to avoid the loud live music blaring out from the main stage, walking for one period between 10 pm  to 1 am, then another between 3 - 4 am when I found it too cold to sleep.




I had my bag decked out with electroluminescent wire and a Microbit programmed to display animations and the current temperature on its LEDs. The lowest it showed was 12 degrees Centigrade.

By the end of that last walk my body had well and truly enough, my feet too blistered to continue. I staggered to the only food truck still open, a poffertjes stall, and carried my little batter balls and some ice cream off to the food tent, which offered a modicum of warmth and shelter. They tasted so good.

Then I managed to fall asleep in a camp chair for about half and hour, waking to see the sunrise. Somehow I dragged myself up for another few laps before the relay closed at 10 am, just as the rain started to fall. Whatever pain I felt was nothing compared to what cancer sufferers go through and it felt special to have a chance to high five survivors as we did those final laps.


It was good to chat to the other members, who I know through karate, as we walked and to have some rare quiet time alone to listen to a podcast. The reserve is also in a great location to watch aircraft on their take-off or landing approaches into Sydney Airport.

I could barely walk through Miranda after B and Alex picked me up this morning and, once home, enjoyed a hot shower before falling fast asleep for a few hours.

I'm looking forward to doing it again next year, but with some better preparation and hopefully somewhere warm to sleep.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lego robots, driving north and piloting planes


The term one holidays are over and what a break it's been, if break is the right way to describe it. I do feel kind of broken.

It started, for me, with the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Concert. The next day I joined Alex and his friend mountain biking at Wylde Park and managed to stack it, giving myself some painful bruises and scrapes. I think that's it for me and mountain biking.



While I worked for a few days Alex attended a couple of Lego EV3 Mindstorms robotics workshops at ANSTO. He especially enjoyed the sensing and data logging session.

Then it was holidays, with my longest time behind the wheel driving up to Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and the Gold Coast.


I had one day of work in the final week and it felt like it was the whole week packing into that one day, while Alex and B went swimming at the Olympic Park Aquatic Centre. Maybe I developed an allergy to work, but I felt pretty sick over the weekend.

B, Alex, and Alex's friend drove down to Nowra for some adventures in the trees while I stayed home sick in bed, but was well enough the next day to visit the Flight Experience open day and spend some time in the 737 simulator.


We also visited the excellent Star Wars Identities exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. The well constructed exhibits make you think about who you are and how you have been shaped. They also house some fascinating models, costumes and plans from the movies. The intricacies of the constructions have to be seen to be believed.





Back to work, back to karate for me on Monday, but one pupil-free day more for Alex. Now it's time to plan the next break.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Concert


As the first school term of 2019 ends so another year of Harry Potter begins. As for my son, it's Year 5 for Harry and things are getting darker.

I'm at the Sydney Opera House with listening to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while the movie is played on the big screen.

The charismatic Nicholas Buc conducts.

I've reviewed enough of these concerts now that it's difficult to write anything new. This is the first of Nicholas Hooper's two efforts in composing a Harry Potter score and I'm rather fond of the soundtrack.

There is a delicate touch to many of the compositions with plenty of tuned percussion from the xylophone family (I couldn't see from my row) and some strong string passages for the more dramatic moments. Very different from John Williams and Patrick Doyle's writing for the previous movies.

The only thing missing seemed to be the electric guitar in the Fireworks piece, though I need to confirm that in the movie as opposed to the soundtrack recording.

The live orchestra really enhanced my enjoyment of the soundtrack. It was lovely and clear against the visual backdrop and the Sydney Symphony did a fine job of performing what I suspect is some quite difficult music.

I'm looking forward to their next effort with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in July.

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