Drums in the Deep: The Fellowship of the Ring at Radio City

This weekend, Radio City Music Hall hosted The Fellowship of the Ring in Concert. This collaboration among composer Howard Shore, the 21st Century Orchestra, The Collegiate Chorale, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus was designed to bring the magic and grandeur of the film score to life by playing it (literally and aurally) beneath an IMAX-size screening of the film.

That any film score should get a space at Radio City Music Hall is a sign that Shore’s Lord of the Rings is widely considered a masterpiece of the genre, so well-composed it has transcended the usual “It’s only movie music” classification. Four years in the making, the score has garnered Shore three Grammys, a Golden Globe, and two Academy Awards, and has made a highly successful world tour as a stand-alone symphony. The technique, artistry, and passion in the work has made Shore as close to a household name as film-score composers ever get.

This meant that the Hall was packed with hardcore fans, and they knew what they wanted.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be the music.

I attended the Lord of the Rings Symphony when it came to Seattle in 2004, and it was one of the best orchestral performances I’ve ever attended. The score, separated into two movements for each film, pulled from the theatrical and extended editions, with additional orchestrations by Shore that helped tie the work together without the visual cues the movie provides. (The symphony was accompanied by a slide-show of conceptual art to help guide the listener through the trilogy without distracting from the music.) It was an electric experience; the audience seemed to be holding its breath throughout. It was operatic in its scope, and painfully beautiful, and for me at least, the score now stands apart from the movie as a separate, and sometimes more successful, work than the movies it accompanied.

Unfortunately, those who hoped for a similar effect from the concert probably didn’t get it.

The score as it was performed this weekend, while masterfully played and sung (and probably more than worth paying to see by itself), came in second to the film. The dialogue and sound effects were cranked up to 11, and often those audio tracks swallowed up the more delicate cues entirely. (Apparently Saturday’s concert had an additional 60 or so chorus members, which might have made the sound that night a little more robust, but against the Balrog sound effects not much can hold up.)

As a die-hard fan of the score I was anticipating this event immensely, and even after the initial disappointment at the volume of the movie I hoped for the best, but after seeing the event I’m not even sure what the intent was, since the concert as played seemed purely to supply the missing audio track, and ultimately did no justice to the complexity and technical prowess of Shore’s musical.

(Nerd complaint: why did they go to all the trouble of arranging such a large-scale symphonic event and then only screen the theatrical edition? Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to at least play along to the extended edition, offering orchestration that some attendees might not have heard? The chorus was beautifully expressive, and I particularly regretted not getting to hear The Passage of the Elves from such a skilled group.)

The audience, however, didn’t seem to notice anything lacking. In fact, they didn’t seem to notice the music much at all; there was occasional applause after a particularly stirring segment, but there was also applause every time Orlando Bloom spoke, Viggo Mortensen held a sword, a fight scene concluded, or Gimli spoke. The applause drowned out the musicians as often as the sound effects did.

(The biggest applause of the night did not go to conductor Ludwig Wicki, nor to Shore himself, but to Elijah Wood and Billy Boyd, who had attended the concert and were brought out onstage during the curtain call to deafening cheers. Wood and Boyd looked suitably abashed, and applauded at Shore themselves.)

Make no mistake, the night was hardly a disaster. The orchestra was beautiful, the chorus moving, and I’m planning to buy tickets for next year’s show because I enjoy hearing the score performed live in almost any circumstances. I just hope that next year’s circumstances, from audio levels to audience levels, are better.

Genevieve may or may not have teared up when Gandalf lit up the city of Dwarrowdelf and the orchestra swelled. Luckily, it was dark, so there’s no proof. She nerds out even more than that on her blog.


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