Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Vancouver Sun

While we in the states are battening down for the Thanksgiving holiday and its epicurean demands, Vancouver is gearing up for this weekend's performance Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings Symphony. Today, the Vancouver Sun is running an interesting article on the upcoming performance. I'm not sure I agree with each and every point, but the writer makes some intriguing observations. See what you think.

Lord of the Symphony: The VSO presents music from Tolkien films and video games
By David Gordon Duke, Vancouver Sun
 VANCOUVER -- It’s often unexpectedly interesting to consider musical “first contacts”: the pieces we hear that draw us into the world of music. For classical fans these magical portals are typically encountered in music lessons and school concerts or on music-related field trips.

Recently I worked with a batch of young composers in Victoria. Titles that instantly evoked the ubiquitous world of video games forcefully reminded me that many of my budding composers were recreating sounds heard at home on their Xboxes, PlayStations, and TV screens.

This new reality is very much behind two events at the Vancouver Symphony over the next few days. This weekend sees two performances of Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings Symphony: Six Movements for Orchestra and Chorus; on Dec. 6 it’s Play! A Video Game Symphony, featuring a potpourri of music composed for popular games from Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog to the premiere of Civilization V.

Doubtless, the odd ultra-traditionalist out there will grump that this a misuse of the power and prestige of the symphony orchestra, but I don’t see it that way and neither does the VSO. In the early days of cinema, filmmakers learned important lessons from opera, ballet, and oratorio. Now, a century later, (and with “classical” music a harder sell than it once was), it’s payback time. The world of popular entertainment finds itself re-popularizing the classical world.

Film music for today’s big epics is inordinately listenable. Howard Shore’s scores for the three J.R.R. Tolkien movies amount to hours of powerful music. In context it’s instantly obvious how his musical leitmotifs and styles relate to the unfolding plot. Jettison the visuals and you have a challenge; translating such material for concert use is an art in itself. What someone who has never read the books or seen the films might make of the concert, assuming you could find such an individual above the age of five, is a moot question.

Shore adapted his materials with conductor John Mauceri, “Moulding them into a series of tone poems free of the specific visual linkage with the films.” “Symphony” is something of a marketing misnomer for the resulting concert version, which is described as “in the traditions of the programmatic orchestral works of Strauss, Liszt, Smetana, and Sibelius.” Projected images come not from the film trilogy (presumably for copyright reasons) but from visual interpretations of Tolkien by artists Alan Lee and John Howe, which mostly predate the movie adaptations.

Then there’s the issue of scope and style. Within the three interconnected sagas, Shore references a grab bag of styles from simple folk-flavoured tunes and hymns up to grand symphonic set pieces. Shore’s basic challenge was the same Tolkien faced in writing his trilogy: keeping a certain opera composer well out of the tale of a magic ring that threatens the universe.

There are no Wagnerian gods onstage in this trilogy, and traditional hero-worship is unequivocally rejected. The Siegfried equivalent, Boromir, is corrupted and killed off at the end of Part 1, and the comically bourgeois and diminutive hobbits emerge as the true, albeit reluctant, saviours of civilization as Middle Earth knows it. Shore’s most subtle effect is a sustained irony: The rousing theme that accompanies the nine multi-species members of the Fellowship of the Ring is undercut by our knowledge that their desperate quest is not to find a treasure but to destroy one; the ethereal music of the High Elves sounds faintly discordant; and the most gorgeous theme of all is that of the seductive, quintessentially evil Ring itself.

The Lord of the Rings project certainly doesn’t stint on resources. Listeners can expect a full symphony orchestra plus large mixed choir, boys’ choir, and solo soprano. And for diehard Tolkienistas, texts are in the eccentric philologist’s invented languages: Quenya, Sindarin, Khuzdul, Adunaic, and The Black Speech of Mordor. (Choir members may quietly pine for the old days when singing in mere Estonian or Czech was considered difficult and daring.)

For non-traditional listeners more in tune with technology than Tolkien, Play! A Video Games Symphony may be more the ticket to the thrill of orchestral music, live. Unlike Shore’s Tolkien symphony, the Video experience promises to be different: hands-on (literally) game play is less about consistent narrative and more about bursts of action. Nor is there a single compositional voice to the video games live event; rather, there’ll be snippets from more than a half dozen games — definitely not a “symphony” in the traditional sense, but an orchestra workout nonetheless.

No matter: it’s a brave new world of music out there and there are big audiences with keen interests. How prescient of the VSO to provide entertainment now while sowing the seeds for an continuing love affair with orchestral music in the future.

Special to The Sun

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