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A symphony from the shire

Observer Scene | Monday, October 4, 2004

Fans of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy have the opportunity this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago to witness the Academy Award winning score performed live by a collection of over 200 instrumentalists and vocalists. The idea to blend the music from all three films into an operatic two-hour symphonic experience was pioneered by the films’ composer, three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore. Shore won the Academy Award for best original score in 2002 for “The Fellowship of the Ring,” as well as in 2004 for “The Return of the King.” He also garnered an Oscar in 2004 with recording star Annie Lennox for their collaboration on “Into the West,” the companion single to “The Return of the King.”The first performance of the symphony was in late 2003 in Wellington, New Zealand, the home of the breathtaking landscapes and vistas seen in the films. The symphony has also been performed in Sydney, London, Pittsburgh and Hartford, Conn. to name only a few. The performance in Hartford two weeks ago was quite a memorable experience. The Hartford Symphony provided the music, and the Hartford Chorale and Connecticut Children’s Chorus provided the vocals for the performance. It was quite an impressive sight to see so many performers on stage at one time. Towering above all was a massive video screen that provided images of the conceptual art for the films, drawn by famed Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe.The symphony is divided into six movements, two for each film in the trilogy. The majority of selections were derived from “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which took up the entire first half of the performance. The selections follow closely to their chronological order on the actual soundtracks, beginning the show with “The Prophecy,” the epic blend of strings and powerful vocals that wowed audiences back in 2001 during the first few minutes of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The incredible energy produced in the first piece is soon quieted by the familiar Celtic flute sounds of “Concerning Hobbits,” and “A Short Cut to Mushrooms.” Movement two begins like the first with a mixture of both orchestra and chorus, this time in the form of the flowing, melodic theme for the elvish city of Rivendell, “Many Meetings.” The mood quickly changes as the fellowship moves into the mines of Moria, and the soft vocals of the beginning of the movement transform into the rough grunts and hoots of “A Journey in the Dark,” leading into arguably the most famous piece in the trilogy, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum.” The climax of the movement eventually winds down into the sorrowful “Lothlorien” and “Gandalf’s Lament,” and finally ends with “The Breaking of the Fellowship,” the concluding piece in the first film. Boy soprano Kenneth Brand, while not able to fully reach the ethereal clarity present in the soundtrack, provided the Hartford performance with a strong vocal performance of “In Dreams,” to finish the first half of the performance.The second half of the performance builds up speed as it moves through “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” While many film series choose to recycle almost all of the music from the original into the subsequent films, Howard Shore has achieved a truly unique composition in providing new themes and melodies for each film. Movement three climaxes with “The Riders of Rohan,” the sweeping Nordic piece that defines “The Two Towers.” The Hartford show featured Carolyn Betty, a renowned opera singer, who gave an incredibly deep performance in the haunting “Evenstar.” To see a singer perform the beautiful elvish lyrics in person only serves to illuminate the music and the language even more. In the fourth movement, the drums of war begin to sound as the symphony moves through the battle of Helm’s Deep with such powerful marches as “The Hornburg,” and “Forth Eorlingas.” These themes are improved in the symphonic performance through the addition of snare drums that are not present in the original score. By the time movement five begins and charges forward with the epic theme for Minas Tirith, “The White Tree,” as the different sections of the orchestra begin to duel back and forth. Movement five also features the best song in the symphony, “The Steward of Gondor.” While the soundtrack version of the piece seems a bit out of place, hearing it blended in with the other themes and performed with such effort by the orchestra and chorus gives it a much more profound impact in the live performance.Movement six, like many of the other movements, begins with an incredible intensity and ends with a peaceful finale. “The End of all Things” simply blows the audience away, in much the same way it did during the climactic volcano scene of “The Return of the King.” Both the orchestra and chorus are operating with all the stops removed, and the effect literally makes the audience hold its breath. The symphony ends in the same fashion as the film, returning with full power to the Hobbiton theme of the first film and winding down with “The Grey Havens.” Shore always intended his score to be seen as an opera told on film, and the soundtrack ends with a Wagnerian finale that is not done nearly enough justice on the original soundtrack. Finally, the Hartford show featured Broadway star Susan Egan performing the Academy Award winning, “Into the West.”And this description is just scratching the surface. Even if you have never read a page of Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings Symphony” will appeal to classical music fans and film fans alike. The film trilogy is to this generation what “Star Wars” was to the last generation, and having the ability to see such incredible music performed live is an experience that will be envied by generations to come.