The Fellowship of the Orchestra

Currently reducing fantasy and music lovers to gibbering, ecstatic wrecks is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring IN CONCERT.  This beautiful spectacle, conducted by Ludwig Wicki, last night played to a full house at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.  It was an epic performance of Howard Shore’s complete The Fellowship of the Ring score performed live with the film by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with the Brisbane Chorale.  Being somewhat a musician myself and an avid lover of The Lord of the Rings (henceforth known as LOTRs) be it book or movie, my heart flipped a layout as high as my nose when I heard of this.

Before I go any further, two apologies:  one, for the lateness of this blog (missed my two-day deadline again); and two, that what follows may be somewhat disjointed, and may dwindle to repetitive, pointless rambling.  What you must understand (as you must understand of any great fan of anything) is that I love LOTRs.  A lot.  So much that nothing about it fails to move me.  So much that I may not be able to produce a tidy, well-ordered piece of writing of a reasonable length today.  I’ll just go through my notes (was taking notes during the intermission, aren’t I professional?) and write so it (kind of) flows to me.

Okay, continuing.

As he had other commitments last night, my brother attended alone on Friday.  Perhaps some might hesitate at the thought of attending the symphony, or any kind of performance for that matter, alone.  For many, such a performance might be attended not primarily for the performance, but as a classy night out with friends or a romantic evening with a lover.  If they couldn’t get seats together, most likely they would find some other way to pass their time.  But my brother attended alone.  For the performance.  I’d do the same, in that situation.  It’s LOTRs, for goodness sake.  But as it happened, I did not have any other commitments yesterday evening – helps when you’ve recently arrived back in the country and have only just gotten a new phone – and could attend  with my mum, dad, and younger sister, sharing it with them.

Turns out it was a good thing I didn’t go alone, as I forgot tissues.  They were required and kindly provided as early as the first views of Hobbiton – started weeping with Concerning Hobbits.  That happened the first time I saw the movie as well, but not often afterwards.  In fact, I cried in many places that I haven’t since the very first (few) time(s) I saw the film eleven years ago – Frodo and Gandalf having their heart to heart in Moria, Gandalf’s fall, and from Boromir’s final battle to pretty much the end.  Was almost gasping for breath when Frodo pulled Sam out of the river; that certainly hasn’t happened for a while.  Could be just that a long interval separates last night my previous most recent viewing of the movie, but I think it’s got more to do with the orchestra.  This style of presentation, huge orchestra and choir with a massive movie screen suspended above – it was exciting enough just walking in and seeing this – should (in my very humble opinion) be the style in which all great movies with epic scores be presented.  For the most part, the live music did not take away from the film – how could anything take away from LOTRs? – but instead offered an intimate, more first-hand experience of the film for its most devoted fans.

As I’ve already stated, I’m a big LOTRs fan, but I’m also a sucker for orchestral music, both independently capable of reducing me to tears.  But the combination, belting forth themes I’ve loved and listened to for so long, feeling them pulsing through the air and vibrating up through the floor into my feet and up into chest, was beyond incredible.  With the live performance, of course, every note was heard much more clearly.  Though we sat on the balcony in the very back row, all the sound was right in front and all around us, powering through the concert hall.  Often during the film the music is kept rather soft to make sure the dialogue is as clear as possible.  The score is vital to the film, but generally not at the centre of attention, its job to enhance, creating mood and tension.  But last night the score was brought to the centre of attention, and I was picking up things I’d never noticed before.  I suppose a sign of a good score is that it does its job without drawing attention away from the story, sometimes barely noticeable.  But last night the music still did its job of enhancing the film; people were just better able to appreciate it and all it truly lends to the film.  And it was exciting.  Did I mention it was exciting?

Not only was the music better appreciated with the film presented in this unique style, but for me a spotlight was directed on Howard Shore’s use of silence. Moments of silence generally occur just before something big (often accompanied by a blast of sound), and if they ring through a cinema, they pulsed and shook within the concert hall.  At this silence your stomach drops, your breath catches, and you wait on tenterhooks.  And I did.  Such silences I feel further display Howard Shore’s fine ability as a composer.  Stand out moments include the split second before Sauraman attacks Gandalf;  the hobbits hiding under the log as the black rider appears; and just as the waves begin to rush along the river during Flight to the Ford.

Having seen this movie ten times in the cinema (now once more on a big screen), innumerable times at home, and listened to the soundtrack extensively (almost every day in the car on the way to and from school for at least six months), I know this music well.  I know when it swells, when it blasts, and when it backs of mysteriously and soars in lament.  I was ready and waiting for it all, playing along in my mind, yet even without the element of surprise it still blew me right off the balcony.  Held out for favourite moments – especially gong strikes – and was never disappointed, though I wish the brass during Arwen and the black riders’ confrontation had been a little louder.  That’s one moment almost inaudible in the movie, but on the soundtrack receives its due credit.

The conductor, Ludwig Wicki, had his own little screen before him, following the film as he conducted, often getting very enthusiastic beating the surrounding air.  How well must he know the movie, to know every cue to the millisecond and lead a performance perfectly matched to the images on the screen?  I’m not sure even Howard Shore did anything like that – I doubt recording sessions were ever carried out in such a situation, playing straight through the score as the film rolled.  Hugely impressed with all the musicians and choristers as well in that respect.  Playing so much music for that long must be physically draining.  Emotionally as well, particularly if they’re LOTRs fans.  Given I’ve already described my tears, you already know I’d be incapable of any such feat.

Like the silences, the choir was also an indication of when something important was going to happen – the voices always seem to come in at somewhat vital moments.  Whenever the choir stood, you knew something good was about to happen.  And once they started singing, whether the guttural bass of battle or the eerie feminine harmonies of Lorien, they left the audience shivering.  The soprano, Clara Sanabras, was lovely – I particularly enjoyed her performance of pieces originally sung by Enya.  Straight and clear she sang, and though I like Enya very much, I can’t pretend it wasn’t fantastic to hear these pieces without any reverb over the top.

Highlight was probably The Bridge of Khazad-dûm.  It was when my grin was widest, and would have been the closest I came to falling right out of my chair and dropping my iPad, was so close to the edge of my seat.  Was always my favourite piece of music from the film.  I know it so well, knew exactly what was happening in the music and on the screen, but having the live music made it far more exciting and involved.  My eyes were flicking between the screen and the orchestra, seeking out whatever was most exciting at that moment almost instinctively – the rocks falling from the cavern ceiling and smashing loose the walkway; the emergence of brass just before the orchestra surges back into the spectacular theme.  Particularly love the choir here, mad basses singing in the language of the dwarfs, rumbling away.

While it was sometimes instinctive, one small problem was that sometimes I just didn’t know where to look.  The movie was up here, the orchestra was down there – wanted to see both at all times.  Watch the conductor sweep his arms up in preparation for a burst.  Check instruments I can’t recognise reliably by sound alone.  And such.  In some scenes though, my eyes shot to the orchestra, no questions asked, knowing when something I loved was coming up and needing to see it created.

Another small problem was that when the music grew quite loud, it was a little more difficult to hear the dialogue (and other sounds – missed the sheep bleat at Amon Hen).  For true fans, however, this doesn’t present much of a dilemma – I’m betting most of the audience could quote much of the movie without many prompts.  And there were subtitles.  This actually helped me pick up some dialogue I’ve always missed before, like when Sauron was speaking while Frodo was in the wraith world at the Prancing Pony, and Gandalf’s words while the Council of Elrond is loudly bickering.  Suppose I could have watched it with subtitles at any time, but never had a good reason.  The orchestra presented a good reason.

Being in such a large crowd of obviously devout LOTRs fans was great fun, also.  There was much laughter at the slapstick moments (such Gandalf braining himself on Bag End’s ceiling), hobbit foolishness (every second thing dear Pippin said), and meme moments (one does not simply walk into Morder).  There were cheers as Aragorn slew Lurtz.  Legolas and the Witch-King were wandering around, posing for photographs outside the concert hall beforehand and afterwards.  Had an almost convention vibe to it.  But far more classy.

The Two Towers IN CONCERT will be here in October next year.  The general consensus judging by the surrounding conversation is that all three films should run one after the other.  It’d be good, but we’ve got to give those poor musicians a break.  It would be hard enough playing three hours of almost constant music to the rigid accompaniment of a film, let alone nine.  And too much to learn at once too, perhaps, otherwise one performed each evening for three days in a row would seem like a good idea to me.

So.  I watched The Fellowship of the Ring last night.  With the score performed live.  And it was not only a much more intimate viewing than our DVD provides, but also more powerful, fuller, making me cringe, cry, jump, shiver, laugh, and grin like mad more than this film ever has before.  The Fellowship of the Ring IN CONCERT was novel experience that made an old love new again, and somehow even more awesome than it already was.

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