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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Concert Review: The Long Dark Road

The Lord of the Rings concludes at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Down with the King: Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Photo © 2003 New Line Cinema/Wingnut Films.
On Friday night, at Lincoln Center, the 21st Century Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of music director Ludwig Wicki, premiered the score from The Return of the King, the third and final chapter in his ground-breaking film trilogy The Lord of the Rings. The performance, at a packed David H. Koch Theater, presented the performers with a considerable challenge, a three-hour gesamstkunstwerk that incorporated the motifs from the previous films, forcing conductor and massive ensemble to keep shifting gears to keep up.

The most grandiose (and also the most scattered) film in this series, The Return of the King spans nearly half of the original trilogy of books, combining events from the end of The Two Towers with the slam-bang battle scenes that make the last book so popular. Mr. Jackson and his vast team presented the war between good and evil in broad strokes of CGI, driving the events on screen to a fevered pitch of excitement that is at once thrilling and ridiculously over-the-top. At this performance, the overwhelming images on screen forced the orchestra into the role of mere accompanists as the drama pulled the viewer in to these tumultuous events.

The Return of the King is an odd hybrid: part Western, part horror movie and part war movie, with the action cutting between the heroes of the story, the charging horses and elephants of the Pellenor Fields and Frodo's battles with the Ring, the creature Gollum and the enormous Hobbit-eating spider Shelob. If all that isn't enough, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) completes his quest for kingship and marriage, lending the story some parallels with the story of Wagner's Siegfried. The summoning of an undead army to defeat the forces of darkness is a little over-the-top and not strictly what happens in the books but it makes for stunning entertainment.

The constant genre-shifting forced Mr. Shore into a paradoxical position, writing a score that narrates more action but is also less inventive than his work on the previous two films. The advance of the Orcish armies of Mordor are depicted with a menacing tread and trill of strings. The Black Riders, servants of the Dark Lord on winged fell beasts are accompanied by a souped-up Dies Irae, and the charges upon the battlefield (of the Gondorian army and the Rohirrim) are  brass-and-percussion-driven variations of earlier musical ideas. There are some inventive touches: three songs performed by cast members (Mr. Mortensen, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan.) Finally, a new instrument, the panpipe represents Denethor (John Noble) the insane Steward of Gondor who nearly causes his city's downfall.

Although it is less inventive than its predecessors, this score had its share of thrilling highlights. The opening, a depiction of the finding of the Ring of Power and the initial corruption of the hobbit Smeágol. It was played with raw emotion, with despairing cries in the violins and dark orchestral timbre as Sméagol (Andy Serkis) fell into shadow and became Gollum. The lighting of the beacons of Gondor was also thrilling, featuring a skillful transformation of the "Fellowship theme" with the movement of a couple of notes from the theme's end to its beginning to create the sense that the heroes' long journey had at last reached its place of resolution.

The centerpiece of The Return of the King is the Battle of the Pellenor Fields, where Mr. Jackson whips elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, humans, horses, elephants and finally the aforementioned army of the undead into a grand frenzy of computer-animated mayhem, set to Mr. Shore's stentor-like brass and jack-hammer percussion. Mr. Wicki maintained a careful balance between orchestral scoring and music written into the movie's Foley tracks, allowing the onscreen effects to make their own statement in contrast with the pounding orchestra. This massive combat contrasts with Frodo and Sam's struggles against Gollum and the enormous spider Shelob, shot through with chromatic and atonal ideas and screeching violins.

In The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien follows the climactic destruction of the Ring with a long coda, lasting a full seven chapters. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Shore take similar pains to wind down their film, with a slow procession of endings for each of the major characters: the coronation and wedding of Aragorn and Arwen (Liv Tyler), the return to an unspoiled Shire (another difference from the books) and the eventual departure of most of the major characters by ship from Middle-Earth. With divided strings and woodwinds, this slow final movement was enhanced by the presence of orchestra, choir and soloist Kaitlyn Lusk, bringing the massive score of this trilogy to a serene and major-key close.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.