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Saturday, 02 April 2011 13:22

Concert review: The St. Louis Symphony's "Lord of the Rings" rules at Powell Hall Friday through Sunday, April 1 through 3

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Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Were it not for the huge movie screen suspended above the Powell Hall stage this weekend, you might be forgiven for thinking that the large orchestra, augmented percussion battery, and chorus were going perform the first work in the Ring cycle – and in a way, you’d be right.

The evening did, after all, present the first of a series of dramatic works revolving around a cursed ring of power that brings doom to those who try to use it. The story unfolds in a mythical world filled with dwarves, dragons, and monsters. It’s a tale of magic, betrayal, honor, and redemption through sacrifice that begins with the rise of dark powers and ends with the passing of the world of magic and the coming of the world of men.

Superficial similarities aside, however, this wasn’t the opera Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold but rather the film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. And while Howard Shore’s ambitious and striking score may not be in the same class as Wagner’s, it does use the same narrative approach, with specific musical motifs identifying key characters and dramatic concepts. In some respects, in fact, Shore may have the advantage, since his musical toolbox has a number of items – including microtones, Middle Eastern and Celtic influences, and aleatoric/improvisational techniques – that were not available to the German master. And which he probably would have rejected as Teutonically Incorrect in any case.

I won’t bore you by repeating what everyone else has already said about Peter Jackson’s beautiful and compelling adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. By now you’ve already made up your mind about it, and in any case, the real story here is not so much the movie as the added depth and power it derives when accompanied by a live performance of the score. I don’t care how good your surround sound system is, there’s simply no substitute for real musicians in a real hall.

Yes, soprano soloist Ann De Renais uses a wireless microphone, as do boy sopranos Blaine Clark and Graham Markowitz, but otherwise this was Howard Shore unplugged. Under the baton of guest conductor Erik Ochsner – who seems to have carved out a nice niche for himself in that gray area between traditional concert music and film scores – the symphony sounded like the finely tuned instrument it has become over the years. Even the more rhythmically tricky and aggressively “modern” parts of the score – the whole Durin/Moria sequence, for example – sounded flawless.

Mr. Ochsner seemed very engaged with and friendly towards the musicians under his baton – not an easy task given the need to divide his attention between the printed score and the film (complete with the visual equivalent of a click track) playing out on a monitor mounted on the podium.

Like Mr. Ochsner, Ms. De Renais has made LOTR concerts a regular part of her career, but her resume also includes substantial operatic and concert appearances. Perhaps that’s why she was clearly emotionally engaged during her solo passages rather than simply acting as just another pretty voice. Given that everyone was riveted to the screen, she could probably have gotten away with the latter, but a real professional doesn’t just coast – and she didn’t.

A round of applause is due, as well, to Chorus director Amy Kaiser and Children’s Choir artistic director Barbara Berner. Shore asks his singers to do a number of things not ordinarily required on the concert stage (such as singing in Elvish and rhythmically grunting and chanting in Dwarfish), so it’s to their credit that it all sounded so polished. A tip of the topper is due, as well, to the encyclopedic program notes from author Doug Adams, whose Music of Lord of the Rings blog appears to be the final word on the subject.

It would, I think, be easy to dismiss mass market events like the Lord of the Rings concerts as the musical equivalent of the slightly stale popcorn sold at the Powell Hall bar, but that would require one to overlook the sheer magnitude of the task involved and the amount of dedication and talent it takes to pull it off. We are, after all, talking about roughly three and one-half hours of music here – most of it unfamiliar and some of it rather challenging. Everyone concerned deserves hearty congratulations.

And besides, how often do you see Powell Hall this packed? Yes, it meant that getting to the restroom at intermission was pretty much impossible and some folks who brought their drinks into the hall apparently didn’t understand that leaving empty cups on the floor is lousy etiquette, but if it awakens a few more people to the glory of live music in a classic concert hall then it’s worthwhile in my book.

Next up on the symphony schedule: Mahler’s powerful Symphony No. 2 sharing the bill with Samuel Barber’s rarely heard Prayers of Kierkegaard. Kelley O’Connor and our own Christine Brewer are soloists with the orchestra and chorus conducted by Maestro Robertson. For more information, you may call 314-534-1700, visit stlsymphony.org, or follow @slso and/or use the #slso hashtag on Twitter.

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