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Friday, April 10, 2015

Concert Review: The Road to Isengard

The 21st Century Orchestra and Chorus takes on The Two Towers.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gollum (played by Andy Serkis) in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Frame from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers © 2002 Wingnut Films/New Line Cinema.
Used here for promotional purposes only. 
The 21st Century Orchestra and Chorus took the next steps on their journey to Mordor on Thursday night, with the first live performance in New York of the complete orchestral score to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This is the second volume of Peter Jackson's award-winning film trilogy based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and a film that won two Academy Awards after its premiere in 2002. Towers was the third concert of the orchestra's five-day stand at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater. As before, the score was conducted by music director Ludwig Wicki with the movie shown on a wide screen above the stage.

Towers is the middle volume of Rings, a book which underwent considerable metamorphosis in its transition to the big screen. It recounts the beginning of a war between the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron, the wizard Saruman, and the former members of the Fellowship of the Ring from the first movie. However, as told by Peter Jackson, it is also a film about medieval-style warfare, attempted genocide and the consequences of war, much darker in tone than its predecessor.

Howard Shore's score for the second film is built on themes of the first, but uses those ideas in a very different way from The Fellowship of the Ring. Ideas here are much more symphonic, from the opening flourish (depicting Gandalf's underground battle with the Balrog) to the statement of key thematic ideas in Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli's pursuit of their comrades. Here, the "travel"theme from Fellowship returns with faster, more urgent tempos, gaining an heroic glow from the addition of trumpets and trombones.


As the new themes join the score, unusual instruments appear. First among these is the Hardingfele, a Norwegian folk fiddle. Tuned higher than a violin and with metal sympathetic strings--it is used to represent the Riders and their people. (Last night it looked like the concertmaster played an ordinary violin in his solo passages but it sounded like a hardingfele.) The music here is bolder and more symphonic than in Fellowship drawing on past leitmotifs in new ways and incorporating driving, pounding rhythms rooted in the dances of Central Europe.

Another plot-line continues the story of Frodo and Sam, two hobbits marching toward the dark land of Mordor. Their goal: to destroy the all-powerful One Ring in the fires of the volcano Mount Doom. Their quest is joined by Gollum, a sad, gangrel creature (played by motion capture actor Andy Serkis). Alberich-like, the former owner of the Ring plots and connives to get his bauble back, aided by a ruthless nature and vexed at times split personality. Scenes of Mr. Serkis arguing with himself (among the movie's best sequences) featured contrabass clarinet and hammer dulcimer depicting both sides of his shattered mind.

The compositional techniques of the 20th century--particularly pounding choral crescendos and brutal  repetition--accompany the marching armies of spear-carrying Orcs. Unlike the opera, most of the supernumeraries in Mr. Jackson's film are digital copies of themselves, a necessary measure to make 700 Maori extras into 10,000 black-clad Uruk-hai. The basses, cellos, low brass and chanting male choir gives them additional, welcome weight in the build-up to the siege of  Helm's Deep, the movie's climactic sequence.

Just as a Bruckner symphony will incorporate ideas from its previous movements in a massive finale, so did Howard Shore in the last act of The Two Towers. Peter Jackson's accelerates the pace, cutting between Frodo and Sam's crisis, the march of the Ents (walking tree-creatures) on Saruman's fortress, and the battle of Helm's Deep, where 300 heroes hold off the aforementioned Orcs in a manner that would make the Greeks proud. The movement ideas intercut faster and faster until the whole came together in mighty final chords. As the credits rolled, soprano Kaitlyn Lusk sang "Gollum's Song," bewitching the audience and indicating that the journey of the Ring was ready for its final stage.
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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.