J.J. Abrams's 2009 film Star Trek, a reboot of the long-running franchise, uses a nifty plot device: through onscreen time travel, the film both honors Trek history while also opening the door to new possibilities for the young cast who become the next crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
As the characters went on about alternate universes on Thursday night at Orchestra Hall, it occurred to me that one could easily imagine an alternate universe in which cutting-edge blockbusters would have nothing to do with a symphony orchestra. As it is, however, while changing nearly everything else about the look and feel of Star Trek, the recent filmmakers chose to commission a full orchestral score from composer Michael Giacchino.
That's not to say Giacchino plays by exactly the same rules as his predecessors like John Williams — who's never written for Star Trek (there's another science fiction franchise you might recognize his tunes from), but whose influence towers over any composer writing orchestral movie music today.
Unsurprisingly given that composer's popularity and the multigenerational appeal of the films he's scored, Williams movies have been among the first played live-to-picture by the Minnesota Orchestra and other orchestras across the country. Minnesota movie fans have been able to see the orchestra play the music to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Home Alone (1990). Next season it will be Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Star Trek is a much newer movie, and the orchestra's live performance under the precise baton of Sarah Hicks — a performance that repeats tonight — gives fans a chance to see how a score fits into a latter-day blockbuster.
Giacchino doesn't have Williams's gift for melody — that's apparent in his adequate but unmemorable score for Rogue One (2016) — and, by design, his music doesn't carry scenes in the manner of Williams. Instead, Giacchino's score is part of a sophisticated and precise sound mix. His beefy brass add punch during the action scenes, and in moments of reverie the effects and dialogue fall away almost entirely to make room for singing strings.
One of the revelations from seeing the score performed live is that the orchestra is not infrequently playing when you don't even think you're hearing it — and, in a sense, you're not meant to consciously think, "There's the score." The musicians start playing, a barely audible part of the mix, and then gradually the film quiets as the players surge. The team who adapted the film for live performance, as well as Orchestra Hall's engineers, deserve credit for pulling everything together in a mix that closely replicates what you hear in the movie theater.
Unlike with Star Wars, Star Trek hasn't been defined by any one composer. (Read Garrett Tiedemann's helpful histories of Star Trek music on TV and in the movies. The original 1966 TV theme by Alexander Courage makes a cameo in Giacchino's Star Trek score, which ended the long reign of Jerry Goldsmith — whose theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), used in later movies and in the Next Generation franchise, was much more cinematic than Courage's jazzy theme.
The orchestra's presentation of Star Trek points the way to next season's diverse offerings. In addition to Raiders and the next Harry Potter installment (Chamber of Secrets, from 2002), the orchestra will be presenting last year's Oscar-winning La La Land, Disney's Little Mermaid (1989), and West Side Story (1961). Then, in May, acrobats from Cirque will join the orchestra for a movie-themed program. Fortunately, they aren't up there now trying to teleport.