A long time ago, in our own galaxy, one movie became a franchise that remains as indelible and powerful as the Force. Composer John Williams’ Star Wars scores are part of the reason the movies are among the highest-grossing film franchises in history, and appeal to multiple generations.
“I don’t think you have Star Wars without John Williams’ soundtrack,” said Sam Johnson-Vrooman, the 17-year-old timpanist who will boom his kettle drums during the Imperial March on Sunday, Nov. 5, for the YOSA Philharmonic’s performance on the Tobin Center main stage.
For some members of the YOSA (Youth Orchestras of San Antonio) Philharmonic, the movie universe created by director George Lucas is more of a curiosity, something their parents were into. They might not even have seen Star Wars themselves.
“I’ve never really been a fan of Star Wars, but I’ve learned a few things about it from my friends,” said Michael Chapa, 17, the YOSA harpist, whose instrument is featured in cascading flourishes that lend texture and delicacy to Princess Leia’s Theme and the other four parts of the Star Wars Suite.
“I think the soundtrack is amazing,” he said during a rehearsal break. “It’s just intense. Something about the writing gets you involved in it, and makes you focused.”
Focus is important for an orchestral musician, particularly for those with only intermittent parts. Chapa listens to his fellow musicians as he waits for his harp to be called upon.
“It’s a little suspenseful, waiting and waiting and waiting,” Chapa said, then “you only have one chance to do it, and if you miss it, well, it’s gone.”
YOSA Music Director Troy Peters works to prepare the orchestra not only for playing the music effectively and beautifully, but for the pressures of live performance. “We don’t get those chances to do retakes,” he warned, as he worked the brass section through the intricacies of the arrhythmic, stuttering opening phrase of the Main Title theme.
Soon, the trombones and french horns had worked through their passages to join behind the trumpet’s soaring, familiar melody. The soundtrack Williams composed for Star Wars ebbs and flows through powerfully dramatic and tender passages, alternating light moments and dark thundering rhythms meant to evoke dread and steely determination in the face of adversity. “Triplets are the rhythm of totalitarianism and menace,” Peters said during the rehearsal, emphasizing a point.
The triangle, as it happens, is also a key element in the compositions. “Who’s playing triangle?” Peters hollered to the back of the room. A sheepish Ty Gonzales-Graves raised his instrument. “That triangle should make me think that Tinkerbell will never die,” Peters said. “She is the most powerful fairy in the galaxy. So really tinkle that thing.”
After the passage was performed properly a moment later, Peters stopped the orchestra again, this time for praise. “Ty Gonzales-Graves, you are maybe, today, right here in this building, the most accomplished triangulist with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. That was great,” Peters said as the orchestra applauded.
Some of the advice Peters gives sounds oddly like what a student of the Jedi academy might study while learning the ways of the Force. “With any kind of craft or skill, it’s the ability to take all the tools that you have, and understand what they do and how they work,” he told the Rivard Report after the rehearsal. “Only then can you forget that,” Peters said, “and get to the stage of making something beautiful.”
Peters suggested that making something beautiful is the overall goal of YOSA, even if its more than 500 student musicians, populating nine orchestras, do not become professional musicians.
“We’re not really here to train musicians,” Peters said. Certainly some YOSA students go on to become professional harpists, timpanists, and conductors, “but the goal is to a have life-changing experience, in adolescence, that gives them a bigger sense of what they can accomplish, no matter what they choose to pursue personally and professionally.”
Over the last nine years with Peters as YOSA’s music director, “100% of YOSA’s high school seniors graduate from high school and continue to college or military service. We’re really proud of that,” he said.
Nervous energy was palpable in the room as Peters wrapped up practice on the Star Wars score. The conductor appealed to the high school seniors in his orchestra. “Imagine you’re graduating from the Jedi Academy,” he told them, dramatizing the sense of anxiety and eventual accomplishment present in the Throne Room theme. Peters wanted the musicians to see themselves in the music, but also asked for “cleaner articulation among the lower cellos and basses.”
“I’m constantly trying to walk that tightrope, of reminding the kids of those elements of technique, at the same time keeping their eye on the goal,” he said, which is “doing something that moves other people, and at the same time is thrilling and exciting for them.”
Peters is old enough to have seen the original 1977 Star Wars film “at least a dozen times,” he said. With this year marking the 40th anniversary of the original film, the original music remains important and might inspire young musicians learning the music for the first time. “I know a lot of classical musicians who say that’s why they got serious about playing music,” he said, adding that “John Williams is a master at what he does.”
The Sunday evening program will include adventuresome compositions by Carlos Chávez, Alexander Borodin, and YOSA alum Niccolo Athens, a San Antonio native who will debut his first orchestral work, Out of the Forest Primeval.