Star Wars inspired symphony conductor’s career choice

IN CONCERT

What: The Music of Star Wars featuring conductor Sean O’Loughlin with the Victoria Symphony and Vox Humana Chamber Choir
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Saturday, Jan. 19, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Tickets: $31 — $86 through rmts.bc.ca, by phone at 250-386-6121, or in person at the Royal McPherson box office

Victoria Symphony principal pops conductor Sean O’Loughlin points to a ski trip in Montreal as the moment that kickstarted his career as a composer.

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Armed with a Sony Walkman and a cassette copy of 1977’s Star Wars soundtrack, the native New Yorker — then a high school music student — found solace during the five-hour drive to the ski hill through the work of Star Wars composer John Williams.

“That was the seed that was planted in getting me to go from a trumpet player to a composer and conductor,” O’Loughlin, 46, said recently from his home in Los Angeles. “That music touched me in a way that inspired me to become a composer.”

O’Loughlin has gone on to a very successful career in music, ranging from performances as a conductor with the Boston Pops Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony to tours with Josh Groban and Sarah McLachlan, among others.

He returns to the Victoria Symphony this weekend for a pair of pops performances at the Royal Theatre that are near and dear to his heart: The Music of Star Wars, which features the work Williams made famous through the George Lucas franchise.

He knows the compositions intimately. When he first moved to Los Angeles to become a film composer, O’Loughlin got a job working for a publishing company that counted Williams as a client.

Jolene King Music Service in Los Angeles was in charge of preparing all the music parts for the instrumentalists prior to recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios in London, and O’Loughlin — a huge Stars Wars fan — was there when Williams’s charts for Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith came into the office.

That was both a good and bad thing. “The film music is broken into little segments, which they call cues, and each cue would tell you where it was used in the film,” O’Loughlin said. “It also had a descriptor to tell you what the scene was about, so I remember cursing myself because I wanted to see the movie like everyone else, as a fan, and not know what was going to happen. Instead, I’d read: ‘Such and such is dead.’ ”

During the pops performances at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, O’Loughlin will lead the Victoria Symphony through Battle of the Heroes, a piece from Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. He’ll also touch on music by Williams for several other films in the franchise, including Main Title from the 1977 original and Princess Leia’s Theme, Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme from Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back.

O’Loughlin is also excited about the involvement of the 24-member Vox Humana Chamber Choir, which will collaborate with the symphony on Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.

True to the version in the film, O’Loughlin said the choir will sing in Sanskrit, and on James Horner’s Avatar Suite, the vocalists will sing in the made-up language of Na’vi, which is how the creatures in the James Cameron film communicate in the 22nd century.

The music from the early Star Wars films, the majority of which earned Grammy Awards and Academy Awards for Williams, is as identifiable as any piece of pop music in history. Williams was well-versed in the history of musical accompaniment for the dramatic arts, and his scores are quite deep in terms of their construction, O’Loughlin said.

“He used a lot of techniques that were right out of opera, like Wagner and all that. He used the leitmotif, assigning rhythmic and melodic ideas to each character, and then used that as the tool with which to tell the story. A lot of times, you could close your eyes and you would know if it was a chase scene, or if it was more of a dramatic scene. He truly is a storyteller, just with the music alone.”

The Music of Star Wars will also include space-themed music from other inter-planetary film franchises, including Theme from Battlestar Galactica by Stu Philips and Glen Larson, Horner’s Avatar Suite and Michael Giancchino’s score for Star Trek.

It was important to include music from other films, especially pieces that aren’t overly familiar, O’Loughlin said. “Some are in the public consciousness, but there’s a few hidden gems in there that don’t really jump out to the casual listener. In life, we go through our daily routines. But it’s good to have something that transports you to a different place.”

The conductor would not divulge several surprises he has planned this weekend, but he couldn’t keep secret the involvement of Emmy-nominated composer Craig Safan, who lives in Los Angeles.

Safan (who scored the TV series Cheers) will be on hand Saturday night to introduce the music he composed, conducted and produced for one of O’Loughlin’s favourite films of the 1980s, The Last Starfighter.

“It kind of came and went as a blip on the radar,” O’Loughlin said of the 1984 cult classic. “But it was one of the first movies to use [computer-generated imagery].”

O’Loughlin met Safan at a concert in Los Angeles, where an orchestra performed the overture from The Last Starfighter.

“When I put together a similar Star Wars program a few years ago, I reached out to him and asked if we could rent the music, and he said yes,” O’Loughlin said. “I reached out to him again for our program in Victoria, and he one-upped me. He and his wife had never been to Victoria, and he said he’d love to come take in the concert.”

Williams is credited with composing the score for eight of the top 20 highest-grossing films in U.S. box-office history, and his soundtrack music to several Steven Spielberg movies — from Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — earned Williams many of his 51 Academy Award nominations, the second-highest total in Oscar history behind Walt Disney.

O’Loughlin isn’t surprised that Safan would travel to see his music performed by the Victoria Symphony, given the number of Williams compositions on the program Saturday.

“I remember going to see [Star Wars] when I was five years old, back when you had to wait in line to see a movie. But I always felt the music was something special. Without it, [Lucasfilm, the company behind Star Wars] doesn’t get bought by Disney for $4 billion. I truly believe that.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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