By Michael W. Harris
There were times watching Maestro Damon Gupton conduct the Virginia Symphony Orchestra through John Williams’ iconic music for Star Wars that you could tell that he had been conducting this music in his head for his entire life. Gupton, the dual threat actor/conductor, is unapologetic about the love for film music that he has nurtured since childhood (full disclosure, I have known Damon for over ten years, since I was a lowly box office worker at the Kansas City Symphony and he was its assistant conductor), and openly professes his love of Williams’ equally famous music for Richard Donner’s Superman.
Watching him conduct the VSO in so many cues that I know by heart from years listening to the London Symphony’s score albums, I cannot help but think of my own childhood spent making music in my head. I even remember an incident from what must have been around 6th grade when, while waiting around after a field trip, I went off to a slightly out of the way area and just started conducting an imaginary orchestra through the “Imperial March” (which Gupton held back until the show’s encore, the most telegraphed encore of all time). And through the years, as I drifted away from and came back to film music, Star Wars was a constant. Always there in the background of my mind. From the moment my mom set me in front of the TV with a bootlegged VHS cassette back in the mid-1980s, all the way through the blu-ray and inevitable 4K release, and even the “de-specialized editions,” Star Wars has always been there with me. And judging by the enthusiastic crowd of children, parents, fanboys, fangirls, and copious lightsabers in the audience (including Gupton’s own), there are no shortage of fans young and old.
Throughout the evening Maestro Gupton had the entire audience in the palm of his hand. While some conductors really struggle with interacting with the audience, Gupton had amazing rapport the entire evening, holding impromptu trivia contests (win $500…of Monopoly money), asking kids what their favorite characters were, and dropping interesting bits of knowledge about the franchise. Such things really highlight two things about Gupton: 1) you can tell that he used to conduct pops concerts on a regular basis back in Kansas City, and 2) he is personable and comfortable at being a performer. He is an actor and consummate professional. A great showman, with a beautiful conducting technique, which expertly guided the VSO through what are, honestly, some very tricky cues. Don’t believe me? Just you try and keep an orchestra of 80+ people together through the tricky accents in “The Asteroid Field” or the sheer velocity and momentum of “Dual of the Fates.”
The selection of cues also deserves special mention and commendation. Not content to simply rehash the same beloved bits from the original trilogy, the concert featured music from the prequels (which Gupton did not hide his dislike of), cues from Williams’ music from the new trilogy, along with two cues from Michael Giacchino’s score to Rogue One. Just about the only thing missing was a Cantina Band or something from one of the animated series. Besides the VSO musicians, also featured was a choir made up of performers from two local high schools and Christopher Newport University, who, despite lacking a bit in numbers and lower register power, admirably complimented the orchestra in two of the best parts of the prequel films: the aforementioned “Dual of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes.”
The orchestra itself also performed beautifully. This was my first Virginia Symphony concert and, if I can help it, it will certainly not be my last—they are performing Mahler Symphony No. 2 next April, and if I am still here you better believe I will turn out for that! Of particular note were the orchestra’s French horn section, a crucial element of any John Williams score. The VSO’s horn section, led by Jacob Wilder, were every bit the equal to the legendary London Symphony. It is disappointing that the group did not play “Binary Sunset” as I would have enjoyed hearing Wilder’s performance of that iconic solo.
If there was one small point of complaint it is that the trumpets, at times, seemed a bit mushy in tone. It is probably the years spent listening to the clear and precise LSO recordings, but the Virginia Symphony’s trumpet section seemed to lack the sparkle and clarity that I am used to. But that was a truly small part of what was an otherwise outstanding performance.
To end on an utterly personal note, I lost count of how many times I had goosebumps during the show. This music has been such a part of my life, ingrained in my soul and in many ways responsible for my career and research path, that I cannot help but get a bit choked up hearing it live. And starting the whole concert off with Alfred Newman’s indelible 20th Century Fox fanfare was just masterful. Because it is NOT Star Wars without it. And while I said on Facebook and Twitter that this was merely the third nerdiest concert I have ever been to—first place being the Saint Louis Symphony performing the music of Final Fantasy complete with Nobuo Uematsu in attendance, and second place going to last summer’s Hans Zimmer Live concert—this will probably be the most memorable and meaningful of my “nerdy concerts.”
Star Wars means a lot of things to a lot of people. And while we can all gripe of overly critical, hyper protective fans—and the depiction and attitudes of said such fans reflected in mainstream culture and media—we can all be united in our love of that galaxy far, far away, and the music that helps transport us to its long time ago.