DSO presents 'Star Wars' music beneath the stars

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Ardent "Star Wars" music fans won't have to travel to a galaxy very far away when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performs selections from the six films Sunday at Meadow Brook Music Festival.

The outdoor venue, the former summer home of the DSO, couldn't be more appropriate for a night of "Star Wars" under the stars.

DSO Assistant Conductor Michelle Merrill, who will be at the helm of the orchestra, is a staunch fan of prolific composer John Williams, who wrote the music for these movies. Williams has been Oscar nominated 49 times (he's won five) and is the most-nominated film composer in history. Merrill says Williams, although an inventive composer in his own right, was strongly influenced by the classical masters.

"John Williams is a master of his craft, probably the greatest film composer of today," she says. "In 'Star Wars,' he takes hints from composers like Wagner by using such techniques as the leitmotif to define a character.

"And in 'E.T.,' Williams was inspired by Howard Hanson's 'Symphony No. 2,' " she adds. "With 'Jaws,' you can hear the primal music of Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring.'

"I've always wanted to do a concert that would pair John Williams' scores with works they were inspired by," the conductor, 31, says. "When they're juxtaposed, you can really see how he's influenced by the past, like all composers."

Merrill recognizes the potency of a cinematic score in determining the success of a picture.

"It can make or break a film," she says. "You can have a good film become a great one because of the music. Or you can have a good film become an OK film if there's a bad score."

Merrill will begin the program, which will be purely musical with no film clip projections, with the heroic "Main Title," followed chronologically by themes from episodes I-III. The second half will be devoted to the next trilogy, IV-VI, which were actually the first ones released, starting in 1977: "Star Wars" (later known as "Star Wars: A New Hope"), "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."

If that sounds a bit confusing, it's because episodes I-III, released between 1999-2005, are actually prequels. To stir the pot even further, a trilogy of sequels is planned, beginning with "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens," slated for release this December.

"We tried to get the music for the first sequel, but it wasn't ready yet," Merrill says. "We were trying to one-up all the other orchestras and be the guinea pig for this new score."

Although the ink wasn't dry on the seventh installment, the scores from the first six will doubtless strike a chord of ebullient recognition with diehard "Star Wars" fans, many of whom at concerts don costumes of their favorite characters, from Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi to Chewbacca and Jabba the Hut.

Merrill plans to dive into the spirit of things, too.

"I may put my hair up in Princess Leia side buns and conduct at one point with a light saber," she says. "I'm really looking forward to this."

The Force is assuredly with her.

George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

The Music of 'Star Wars'

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Sunday

$15-$55

Meadow Brook Music Festival, 3554 Walton, Rochester Hills

(Doors open at 6 p.m.)

(313) 576-5111, dso.org