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A symphony of epic proportions

The Florida Orchestra and guests will take a musical journey through Middle-earth this week.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published February 18, 2007


When Michele Maro hears the sweet Celtic tune of Concerning Hobbits, she gets choked up. The number is associated with the pastoral Shire in the The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and you'd have to look far to find a bigger fan of the epic film fantasy than Maro.

"Every time I hear it, I get a thrill all over again, and the tears just start," says Maro, a St. Petersburg resident who has watched the trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's books hundreds of times.

As moving as Maro, 49, a sales administrator at Tech Data, finds The Lord of the Rings soundtrack, she has perhaps most enjoyed hearing the score in concert in a symphonic version by composer Howard Shore.

Twice she has traveled to hear Shore conduct the work, first for the symphony's 2003 premiere in Wellington, New Zealand - director Peter Jackson's homeland, where the movies were made - and then in Atlanta the next year.

"It blew my mind," says Maro, whose left upper arm sports a tattoo of the Leaf of Lothlorien, an iconic symbol from the trilogy. "The music is so powerful, and it was so different to actually hear it in person, to hear the instruments and the singing so clearly. It's almost like a different piece of music."

This week, Maro and other concertgoers will get a chance to hear The Lord of the Rings Symphony performed by the Florida Orchestra, a mixed chorus, boys chorus and vocal soloist, conducted by Markus Huber. The shows Wednesday and Thursday at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater are the first in Florida.

"The symphony is two hours, 10 minutes. The original work is 11 hours," Shore says, speaking from his New York studio. "So I was taking the 11 hours of music from the three films and creating a piece in six movements - and the six movements of the symphony follow Tolkien's book.

"The score for the concert is a coherent journey through Middle-earth that takes you from The Fellowship of the Ring through the end of The Return of the King."

Three years, nine months

Shore, 60, has composed the scores to more than 60 films, including The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Gangs of New York and Big. He collaborated with director David Cronenberg on 10 films and is adapting their biggest hit, The Fly, into an opera.

Like millions of students in the 1960s, Shore had been enchanted by the Lord of the Rings books, but he hadn't thought about them much since then until Jackson asked him to score the films. The composer ended up spending three years, nine months on the project.

"I literally carried the book everywhere," Shore says. "As I was working on a scene in the film, I would also be reading the section of the book for details. I learned about things like ring mythology and ancient languages and Nordic poems. It was quite a fascinating world to live in, Middle-earth."

Shore won seven Academy and Grammy awards for The Lord of the Rings. Soundtrack albums from the three movies, released in 2001, 2002 and 2003, together have sold more than 4-million. Lately, the composer has focused on putting out deluxe, three-CD sets, running more than three hours apiece, of the complete scores of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, with a four-CD set of The Return of the King due this year.

"The Return of the King was the most difficult, because you were dealing with some of the most iconic scenes in the trilogy," Shore says. "The destruction of the ring was something I always knew was coming. I could not have written the destruction of the ring when I was writing The Fellowship of the Ring. There's a certain power to the scene on Mount Doom that I don't think I had the capability to write when I started to create. It took me years to get ready. It was really an emotional process."

An ingenious cohesion

Looming over The Lord of the Rings is Wagner's operatic opus on similar mythological concepts, The Ring of the Nibelung. "You can't write a work like this and not acknowledge Wagner's work," Shore says.

Every film composer owes a debt to Wagner, who refined the use of leitmotifs, or musical themes, to identify characters or ideas or settings in his musical dramas. Shore says there are about 80 leitmotifs in his scores keyed to objects, locations, symbols and characters of Middle-earth, and his resourcefulness with these gives a remarkable cohesion to the sound of the three movies.

Shore also did his own orchestration, somewhat unusual for a film composer, many of whom turn their musical sketches over to somebody else to fill out with the full instrumentation of an orchestra. This sort of care and concern for craft resulted in a leaner, more transparent score than one whose orchestration was jobbed out.

One of the most appealing aspects of Shore's film score was his use of vocalists from Enya to Renee Fleming to Annie Lennox. He was able to indulge in luxury casting that only a hit movie could afford, such as flute superstar James Galway noodling away in The Return of the King.

Shore's symphony is performed by more than 200 musicians. Along with the orchestra, there are 120 singers from the University of South Florida Chamber Singers, the Clearwater Christian College Chorale and the Florida Boychoir. Kaitlyn Lusk, a teenage mezzo-soprano, is the vocal soloist in numbers such as Gollum's Song and Into the West sung by Lennox at the end of The Return of the King.

"There are six elf dialects," says Richard Zielinski, director of the USF group, referring to the invented language of Middle-earth's elves. "It's wonderful to sing, because you get to color the mood of the scene using different vowel formations."

The orchestra is complemented by an array of instruments such as pan flute, Japanese Taiko drums, Irish whistle and a chain struck against the strings of a piano. The production also includes projected illustrations from Tolkien books by Alan Lee and John Howe.

New patrons, temporarily

Last week, the Florida Orchestra had sold about 1,700 tickets to both performances. "We're trusting that there's a cult following here that will kick in," public relations director Greg Musselman says. "We're also marketing to families" by offering half-price tickets for kids under 12. Costumed hobbits, orcs and dwarves are welcome.

Musselman remembers several years ago when the orchestra enjoyed a surge of 11th hour ticket sales for a concert of Frank Zappa's music that sold out Mahaffey. "All of a sudden, there were all these people coming who had never been to hear the orchestra," he says.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented The Lord of the Rings Symphony in June 2004, when The Return of the King was still in theaters. It had just won 11 Oscars, including best picture, best original score and best original song.

"We did four performances and sold them out," says Charlie Wade, vice president of marketing. "Howard Shore was the conductor, and when he walked out onstage, everyone burst into applause."

With concert attendance generally stagnant, symphony orchestras are looking to crossover events like the Shore symphony to bring in new listeners. "I didn't recognize any of our regular concertgoers there," Wade says. "They were on the younger side."

But three years later, Wade says, he has not seen many of those Lord of the Rings fans come back for conventional symphonic fare. "We had a great time with it, but we didn't get a lot of followup."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.


If you go

Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings Symphony will be performed by the Florida Orchestra, choruses and mezzo-soprano Kaitlyn Lusk, Markus Huber conducting, at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg. $25-$65; half-price for children under 12. (813) 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; www.floridaorchestra.org.