Fresno Phil does ‘Star Wars’ proud

In opening concert of the season, Fresno Philharmonic offers a successful pops salute to the music of John Williams

CONCERT REVIEW

I honestly don’t remember if I ever saw “Jaws” the movie. I’m a wimp when it comes to such things, so I suspect I didn’t. But on Saturday night, as the Fresno Philharmonic breezed through a snappy rendition of the John Williams theme to the classic 1975 movie, I still felt my pulse rate tick up a little. Through the magic of popular-culture osmosis, I have absorbed the universal dread felt when hearing the “Jaws” music. With a motif of just two notes, Williams somehow captures the feeling of floating in the ocean with just your head above water, your arms and legs obscured and vulnerable, when suddenly you think what it would be like to see a flash of fin come toward you. I’m staying on the beach, thank you.

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Saroyan stormtrooper: Intermission is over, and if you don’t get back to your seat, you’ll be sorry. Photo / The Munro Review

You could say that this cultural connection to Williams’ music — even when I didn’t see the movie in question — is the key to the rousing good time I had at the orchestra’s opening concert of the season, a pops offering that highlighted some of the best known pieces by the prolific composer. Time and again as the program progressed, the mere mention of the names of the films whose themes we were about to hear prompted yips of acknowledgement and sentimental sighs. From the martial energy of “Star Wars” and optimistic heroics of “Superman” to the tender humanity of “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” this wasn’t just familiar music: It was a series of aural mileposts on a cultural journey. You didn’t even need to remember specific moments from these and other films or even seen them to be invited to the party; what’s important is that somehow these famous musical moments have transcended the medium for which they were designed and become part of our societal vocabulary.

A few thoughts on the successful event:

Enthusiastic host. Stuart Chafetz, the guest conductor, didn’t so much walk onto stage as bound onto it. He filled the evening with quips and trivia about Williams’ repertoire. (“You can just picture John Belushi shouting ‘food fight!’ in ‘Animal House,’” Chafetz said of Williams “March from 1941,” which starred the comic actor.) In that number, the conductor actually hopped a few times on the podium.

IMG_3182The timing of the concert. While it would have been nicer, at least symbolically, to kick off what the orchestra is calling its “New Era” under newly appointed music director Rei Hotoda with her on the podium, I imagine that scheduling was an issue. Beginning with a pops offering, however, did bring in a lot of first-time audiences. Maybe some of them will come back for the Masterworks series. (Hotoda’s official debut as music director is Oct. 15.)

Passionate solos. The orchestra’s Jeannie Psomas delivered a moody and moving solo in “Viktor’s Tale,” a theme from the soundtrack for the movie “The Terminal.” It was interesting to hear music by Williams in an Eastern European style. With echoes of that influence, concertmaster Limor Toren-Immerman captured the intensity of the theme from “Schindler’s List,” a movie that I definitely did see, and whose doleful music added to the cinematic impact.

The orchestra’s sound. I thought the musicians sounded terrific in “The Cowboys” overture, a Williams score that has been mostly forgotten today but always ends up on his soundtrack compilation albums. And “E.T.” was very nice. On a critical note, I wish the brass section could have been beefed up a little more, particularly the trumpets. “Superman” in particular sounded a little thin. “The Flight to Neverland” theme from “Hook” was quite nice, but the ending was wobbly. Overall, the orchestra sounded crisp, and I enjoyed the enthusiastic ambiance projected by the musicians.

My favorite “discovery” moment. I did not recognize the “Jurassic Park” theme at all, and because of that it felt like I was hearing it for the first time. It made me appreciate all the more Wiliams’ prodigious talent.

The “Star Wars” characters. Audience members were greeted outside before the concert began by members of the 501st Legion, South Valley Squad, a group of enthusiasts and proud owners of some impeccable looking costumes. They were dressed as such characters as Darth Vader, stormtroopers and jawas. The actors stayed in character throughout the evening. (I particularly liked it while standing in line when one man approached a stormtrooper and asked if he could take a selfie with him. The stormtrooper replied gruffly that he would do no such thing — and then happily obliged.) My only note: In the actual performance, when the group of characters made two different entrances on stage during the “Star Wars” music, someone should have directed them with more care — had them do something, either strike a pose to form a tableau, stand straight at attention, or behave in character — rather than just fidget on stage. The jawas tried to bounce in time to the music, but, let’s face it, jawas will never be convincing dancers. The overall effect was a little awkward.

The “Star Wars” music. “This next selection is probably what 99.9% of you have been waiting for,” Chafetz said as the orchestra geared up to play three famous themes (the Imperial March, Princess Leia’s Theme and the Main Title) from the original “Star Wars.” Indeed, the familiar opening notes energized the audience. For me, it was almost anticlimactic. Perhaps music can be too well known; the “Star Wars” themes didn’t resonate with me as much as earlier songs on the program.

Shark attack. And then there’s the “Jaws” theme, which as I’ve said made me tense even though I’m 150 miles from the beach. The fun surprise: a loud and convincing scream at the end by violist Terry Paul, who far overpowered a couple of half-hearted attempts at vocalized terror by an audience member. (Was this a Fresno Philharmonic first to be sorta interrupted by a sorta heckler?) It’s nice to know that professional musicians can deliver any sound effect, even one that might occur when your surfboard becomes a snack.


Related story

Make new memories with John Williams: In its season-opening concert, the Fresno Philharmonic offers a lineup of movie music written by the “Star Wars” composer 


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

1 thought on “Fresno Phil does ‘Star Wars’ proud”

  1. Star Wars music “too familiar”? To Tatooine with you, Donald! By the way, I’m pretty sure I saw Rei Hotoda in the lobby.

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