The L.A. Philharmonic Will Bring A New Hope And The Empire Strikes Back To Life At The Hollywood Bowl Conductor David Newman Discusses The Challenges Of Live Scoring John Williams' Epic Orchestrations
LOS ANGELES, CA- In the world of movie music, no other composer is as well-known as John Williams — and few scores are as iconic as the orchestration of Star Wars. In the run-up to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s live-to-picture performances of Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back at the Hollywood Bowl, Blurred Culture had the opportunity to speak with conductor David Newman about the performances, die-hard fans, and maestro Williams himself.
With over 100 film scores under his own belt, Newman is uniquely qualified to tackle the challenge of perfectly synching orchestra to film. In a live performance, there is no room for a do-over — no second take — and yet the realities of a philharmonic’s schedule also mean that there is limited rehearsal time. That makes the conductor’s focus and knowledge of the film critical for these productions. Newman also conducted last summer’s live-to-picture performance of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was so seamless that it was easy to forget that the LA Phil was sitting in front of us.
Newman describes the challenges of blending film and music, stating that “it’s a little bit acrobatic, trying to stay in synch and then conduct — really conduct — an orchestra… There’s a whole other layer with synchronizing that makes it a little bit more difficult and a little more uncomfortable for most people unless you’ve actually done it before.” He explains that the audience, too, feels the difference between live and recorded movie music. “There’s a little bit of a danger element to it — it could go off the rails. You know a movie’s not going to go off the rails — it’s all been as perfected as it can be. This — something could happen.”
For the conductor, this performance is more than just juggling film and sound. His connection to John Williams is a family affair. Newman adds, “This is a very special year for John at the Bowl, and John’s very dear to my family. On a personal level, it feels very family — I’m just so happy to be able to do it.” After all, some of Williams’ early work was with Newman’s father, Academy Award-winning composer Alfred Newman. Academy Award-nominee brother Thomas Newman and uncle Lionel Newman also worked closely with Williams — with Lionel working as musical supervisor for the 3 original Star Wars films. But he also sees it as a connection beyond his own relatives, stating “I think overall it’s kind of an international family, Star Wars people.”
Die-hard fans will certainly appreciate this link to Star Wars history, and they’ll also undoubtedly arrive in costume. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to picture the Hollywood Bowl filled with legions of Reys, wookies, cinnamon bun hairstyles, and bounty hunters — a wretched hive of scum and villainy, complete with orchestral background. The venue is encouraging the festivities by distributing lightsabers to early arrivals at the August 7, 9, and 10 performances. (Though sadly not to the August 11 show this reviewer is attending… but fortunately I have my own because I’m that kind of nerd.)
With that type of loyalty to the franchise, however, comes a certain pressure. Everyone in the audience will have intense feelings about the films and deep emotional responses to “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” among others. A subset of Star Wars fans have also been involved in recent bullying of Kelly Marie Tran for her portrayal of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, with Mark Hamill and others having to publicly defend her.
Given the passionate nature of the fandom, it’s safe to wonder if Newman feels pressure or receives any pushback for his work on the live performances. He says, however, that his experience has been a positive one, with fans thrilled to see beloved films brought to life. He adds that “for us on stage, it feels like a gift to the audience. It’s a very festive feeling… There’s a level… of joy that people who love these movies bring to the audience and it’s palpable. You can feel it onstage, so it sort of feeds off each other.”
Since there has traditionally been a division between the “fun” pops performances of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the “serious” classical performances of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it seemed surprising at first that the Phil was playing these shows. Newman explains that the attitude that movie music was somehow “less than” other orchestral music originated in the 20s and 30s with composers who had unsuccessfully tried their hands at film scoring and subsequently derided the genre as “trashy.” In recent years, however, scores are moving into the repertoire of major orchestras — and not just here in Los Angeles.
Newman places credit for the recent canonical acceptance of movie music in the classical world squarely in one place: with John Williams. Newman explains that “it’s been an evolution, and it’s mainly because of John Williams at the Boston Pops, and all the PBS specials he did, and all the work he did that this is not such an issue anymore… Certainly there’s no blowback from the LA Phil. They’re perfectly happy — they love doing this… I think it’s directly attributable to John Williams… and his tireless effort to bring this music to the public so they could actually hear it and make a judgement instead of just out-of-hand dismissing it.”
We’re thrilled that movie music holds an increasingly established place in the classical canon, and we’ll be counting down to these performances. After all, with the pressure of a live-to-picture concert, there’s no more fitting advice than the words of Master Yoda: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
David Newman will be conducting John Williams’ scores for Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl: A New Hope: August 7 & 10; The Empire Strikes Back: August 9 & 11.