The great music critic and cultural theorist Greil Marcus once wrote of The Beatles' famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan show that "excitement wasn't in the air; it was the air".

For those of us born a generation later, "Star Wars" was our Ed Sullivan moment. Brothers painstakingly drew Millennium Falcons in exercise books; sisters wore their hair in giant buns that covered their ears; we all ran around making lightsaber and pew-pew laser pistol noises.

Laurence Reese first saw "Star Wars" on his 14th birthday, at the local cinema in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lancaster is Amish country; film buffs will know it from the Oscar-winning movie "Witness", which was shot locally. "Witness", released in 1985, starred Harrison Ford, but in 1977 Ford was Han Solo, the cocky hero – our cocky hero – of George Lucas's space opera.

Many of us ached to one day become Han - or perhaps Leia or Luke. Young Larry Reese wanted to be Kurt-Hans Goedicke. Never heard of him? Kurt-Hans Goedicke was the percussionist who played timpani on the soundtrack in the original three movies.

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"Oh my God, that music was transforming," says Reece, now principal timpanist with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, which plays live cinema concerts of "Star Wars" (or "A New Hope", if you must) and "The Empire Strikes Back" in Auckland next Saturday (aka Star Wars Day) and Sunday.

The NZ Symphony Orchestra performances of
The NZ Symphony Orchestra performances of "Star Wars: A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" will bring back memories.

Raised in a house thrumming to the rhythms of the big bands, Reese began playing drums aged 5 or 6, and by the time he was a teenager he had joined the school marching band. Reese, young though he was, knew his music. The "Star Wars" soundtrack was different.

"It turned a visual experience into one that assaulted more of my senses," he remembers.

"I'd just started playing xylophone and crash cymbals and glockenspiel but I had no idea drums could be so cool and make that much of an impression on the listener. I really do credit "Star Wars" with opening my eyes and ears to classical percussion in general and timpani in particular."

John Williams, the composer who wrote the music for the film and numerous others, has a great way with a percussion part. Maybe it's a family thing; his brother Don is a legendary LA session timpanist who, Reese says, "has been on everything you've ever seen". Don wasn't on the first six movies in the "Star Wars" series, though. The studio had a soundtrack recording agreement with the London Symphony Orchestra, where Kurt-Hans Goedicke was for many years principal timpanist.

Reese, having completed a music degree at Juilliard and begun further studies at the Royal College of Music in London, plucked up the courage to ask the older man for lessons.

"Kurt's a very intense guy," Reese says, "very intimidating to a young student and especially for me personally. He was a direct inspiration for my studies, so to meet him was a huge personal highlight."

The timpani part for "Star Wars" is famously difficult. Even Goedicke has admitted he found it tough, with the added pressure of knowing that budget constraints meant the LSO had to record the soundtrack quickly, with little or no time for re-records.

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There are no re-records during a concert, either; Reese will have just one chance to get it right during the NZSO's performances. It's a lot of playing, too; the last 35 minutes of the film are a flat-out musical sprint, until the Death Star explodes.

"The timpani part is very busy," Reece agrees. "I'll have very happy feet, dancing around between the pedals. Williams pushes the boundaries of the instrument's capabilities; he demands that it's a harmonically integral part of the music, as opposed to just percussive, so there are lots of chromatic passages, lots of tuning changes. But we've played the opening so many times in pops concerts over the years and nobody has a bad day because it's so much fun."

Lowdown:
What: Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, with live orchestra.
Where and When: Spark Arena: A New Hope, Saturday, May 4; The Empire Strikes Back, Sunday, May 5. See nzso.co.nz for details.