Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back in Concert – Live Review

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is back with another amazing film concert. This time, arguably the best Star Wars film of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. Conducted by Nicholas Buc, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performed eight sold-out concerts at Art Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. Four at the start of October, and most recently, this week of the 19th of October through to the 22nd of October. This was one concert I was determined not to miss and was lucky enough to catch the performance on the 19th.

As I entered the venue, I found that the concert hall was seemingly split in two. With two giant flags depicting the Rebels and Imperial logos draped over the balcony on either side. Even the lights that hang from the ceiling were also divided into red and blue in a visual representation of the Light and Dark sides of the Force. My seat in the stalls was on the Rebel/Light side of the concert hall, and I was excited for the concert to begin.

Members of the 501st Legion (a Star Wars Cosplay community) entered Hamer Hall dressed as a Storm Trooper, Tie-Fighter Pilot and Darth Vader, taking up position just in front of the conductor’s post. Shortly after, Nicholas Buc entered the stage wielding a red lightsaber, receiving a rapturous applause.

Introducing the concert, Buc excitedly explained how for this particular film John Williams wrote some of the Star Wars’ series most iconic themes, and there are a lot of them! There is of course the Main Theme’ also known as Luke’s theme. Han and Leia’s growing relationship gets a theme. Lando, Boba Fett, and Yoda get a theme. There are even motifs for the Androids, Asteroids, the Millennium Falcon, and even The Force! But as Buc exclaimed, “The icing on the cake, the master stroke … is for this guy right here!” gesturing towards the Darth Vader standing in front of him. Of course, that being theme being ‘The Imperial March. Again, the audience erupted in applause.

There was even a comical moment when the three members of the 501st left and Buc joked to Vader how he wanted his martini at interval. Vader turned and ‘Force choked’ Buc, just like how we see Vader uses his power in the movies!

Buc continued with the introduction, explaining how the London Symphony created the score with John Williams over 9 days at 18 different recording sessions. Well, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were about to perform the score, live and in its entirety over two hours. Buc also encouraged the packed and eager Hamer Hall audience to show their appreciation for the orchestra at any chance we could. It didn’t take long for the audience to cheer as the ’20th Century’ theme played. I got goosebumps and the film hadn’t even started yet!

I have attended many film concerts over the years, but this was the first time that the lighting impressed me. At least, the first time that I noticed it. The unmistakeable Star Wars title screen text crawl saw the lights flash in sequence as the text rolled across the screen at the rear of the stage. Accompanied by the MSO belting out the Star Wars theme, the crowd collectively booming in applause and cheers yet again!

For the uninitiated, a ‘Musical Theme‘ or ‘Motif‘ is a piece of music that typically accompanies a character, protagonist or antagonist individual character or group, relationships and even plot markers of a film. And as mentioned earlier, The Empire Strikes back has a lot of them. What I love most about film concerts is that the music is the main entertainment, and these incredible themes are front and centre. I even picked up on some of the more subtle moments in the music that I had never noticed before. Mostly with the use of ‘Han and Leia’s Theme’. Even when they are not on screen together, there are small parts of their theme hidden within the music, helping add dimensions and growth of their relationship that we witness transform.

There is probably only one piece of film score that you could play to someone, without context, and they could guess it in an instant. That being the ‘Imperial March’ or ‘Darth Vader’s Theme’. We get our first taste of this iconic theme within the first half hour of the film with the impending arrival of the Imperial army at the Rebel’s base on Hoth. Even as the music settles, as dialogue continues, there are subtle notes being played. As the attack commences, the tempo picks up and the score switches between the ‘Rebels Theme’ and ‘Imperial March’. A battle of themes as the actual battle unfolds on screen is utter genius from John Williams.

Of course, the film is just as brilliant as its music. As the title suggests, this is the villain arc of the trilogy with Darth Vader being the central focus. Han and Leia’s relationship grows from frustrated friends to a deep connection, and Luke learns more about The Force and becoming a Jedi.

There is arguably the most iconic line in cinematic history in this film too! I probably don’t even need to say it and you could likely guess. It is, of course, “Luke, I am your father”. For a film that is as old as this one, there are always new generations experiencing these films for the first time. It is one of the reasons I relish the opportunity to see them on the big screen whenever I can and watching them with an audience is always an enjoyable experience. The cheers and applause from the audience at Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s film concert just heightens the excitement tenfold. When Vader delivers that line, the cheers were just as loud for that iconic moment as they were for the orchestra themselves.

If you have been following my reviews for a while, you will have noticed that I have covered many different film concerts over the years. And each time, I am excited to experience these films in a new setting. Without a score behind them, these films would not be anywhere near as incredible. There is just something so undeniably special and unique about sitting in a concert hall, watching a film, and having the score performed live right in front of you. It’s pure magic and an experience I relish every single time.

Another thing I enjoy about the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra film concerts is the sense of community that they create. Fans from all walks of life show up to experience the excitement of the live score. Dressing up in their best costumes and as their favourite characters. I wore a meme tee of the scene where Vader tells Luke he is his father, with text above the image that reads, “Can I give you a hand?”. I have never seen anyone else wearing this tee, until this concert when a woman in the same row, only two seats away, was wearing the exact same shirt. We had a lovely conversation about the film and shared our love of the MSO film concerts, even taking a photo together.

On the topic of photos, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra almost always have a photo booth setup for patrons to create some fun memories with. In a collaboration with the legends at Social Exposure, they had setup a booth with some lightsabers for us to pose with. I always take advantage of these photo opportunities and now have some wonderful memories to look back on. I love how the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra understand how important it is to have something to keep and cherish of the film concert experience. Seeing the delight of the patrons getting the chance to live their Star Wars dreams and hold a lightsaber was a small gesture but with a big impact, creating core members for young and old fans alike.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra have outdone themselves yet again with their eight performances of The Empire Strikes Back. Seeing the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in their element, bringing a film I have loved for years to live is a special experience I am certain I will look back on and fondly remember. These film concerts with the MSO are, I dare say, the best way to experience a movie. Especially ones that are iconic as this Star Wars classic.

Whilst there are no more performances of this film as all 8 sold-out sessions have concluded, the MSO do return in early 2024 with performances of the final film in the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi which you must not miss.

For tickets and more information on their next film concert events, please visit the MSO website:

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