Monday, September 5, 2011

New Concert: Of Myths and Rings

In May of this year, I was contacted by Howard Shore's office with a rather unique request: Can you write a concert?

Wait, let me back up.

Before I came into the picture this inchoate concert was the brainchild of James Cassidy, conductor of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. Cassidy had envisioned a concert that would encompass both of the great musical Rings, one Wagner's, one Tolkien's/Shore's. He had brought his idea to Shore, who was intrigued. This, of course, had been a topic of conversation for a number of years. Jonathan Dean had given some Wagner/Shore talks back in the early 2000s, and added some thoughts for the Music of LOTR book. Alex Ross had written a piece for the New Yorker. One of New York's very first choral performances of Shore's Rings music featured a sort of back-to-back with Wagner. But these fascinating comparative glimpses were just this -- cursory glimpses into a rich vein of subject matter.

So that mid-May phone call came in. Can you write a concert? A Wagner/Shore concert? Can we do something that is both deeply informative and narratively resonant?

"Sure! Yes!" I said, remembering that whenever asked if you can do something, you're supposed to say "Sure! Yes!" and then figure it out later.

"Sure! Yes!" I think you're supposed to repeat it, too.

So over the next few weeks and months I once again buried myself in Ring lore. It had been a while since I'd been back in research mode and it felt ... good, actually. Great, even. I love this part of any project. I re-read every Wagner text I had at hand, and ordered a few new ones to boot. Heck, I even reviewed certain bits of my own book, just to put myself back in the proper headspace.

And, of course, there was the music -- nearly twenty-four glorious hours of it -- which I studied with the written scores. We wanted a two-act performance, each half around forty-five minutes in length, so some judiciously thoughtful pruning was required.

"Pruning" is a scary word. It's essentially an act of adaptation, which, when you're dealing with such classic material, is quite a gamble. Too much of this, or too little of that, and you're sunk. In this case, however, "pruning" was the key.

I decided this would work best as a performance for orchestra, chorus, soloists, and narrator. Wagner isn't Shore and Shore isn't Wagner, but they were both influenced by the same sort of mythological histories, and they responded in somewhat similar ways. Sometimes those similarities are musical, sometimes textual, sometimes extra-musical, etc. If these things were going to be addressed in a performance, you'd need a narrator. And, if the narrator is going to make these points, the audience needs to hear these points. This is a performance, not a lecture. So this means you can't have Act One be purely Shore or Act Two be purely Wagner. The composers need to coexist structurally. And once they're doing that, the "pruning" spells itself out nicely, because your structure is dictated by the relationship between the two composers' music. How does Wagner handle conflict, musically speaking? How does Shore? How does Shore handle love? How does Wagner? How about death? Rebirth? Nature? Greed?

This was the trick to the storytelling. Don't try too hard to compress. You simply can't push that much material into that size box. Instead, shift focus; move your frame around. "Pruning" led to a comparative structure, and the comparative structure led to what I feel is the perfect balance of the two composers. Act One will be primarily focused on Tolkien and Shore with splashes of Wagner tossed in here and there. Act Two is the direct opposite: Wagner with dashes of Shore for variety and clarity. The weighty/lengthy pieces were referred to as the "Selections," the shorter (but still substantial) bits were "Inserts."

Here's our musical rundown:

Act One
Selection 1: Shore: The Prologue
Selection 2: Shore: Concerning Hobbits
Insert 1: Shore: The Pity of Gollum
Insert 2: Shore: The History of the Ring
Insert 3: Wagner: The Ring Motif
Insert 4: Wagner: The Forging Theme
Insert 5: Shore: Isengard (Five-beat Pattern)
Insert 6: Shore: Rivendell
Insert 7: Shore: The Fellowship Theme
Insert 8: Wagner: Siegfried's Horn
Insert 9: Shore: The Gondor Theme
Selection 3: Shore: Khazad-dûm
Insert 10: Wagner: Birdsong Motif
Insert 11: Shore: Nature's Reclamation
Insert 12: Wagner: Loge as Fire
Selection 4: Shore: March of the Ents
Insert 13: Shore: Mount Doom Theme
Insert 14: Shore: Andúril - Flame of the West
Insert 15: Shore: Fellowship, Gondor, and Rohan
Insert 16: Shore: Sam at Cirith Ungol
Selection 5: Shore: For Frodo/Mount Doom/Crack of Doom
Selection 6: Shore: Days of the Ring

Act Two
Selection 7: Wagner: Entrance of the Gods Into Valhalla
Insert 17: Shore: Ringwraiths
Selection 8: Wagner Ride of the Valkyries
Selection 9: Wagner: Magic Fire Music
Insert 18: Wagner: Siegfried's Strength Motif
Insert 19: Shore: Descending Thirds
Selection 10: Wagner: Forest Murmurs
Insert 20: Wagner: Dragon Motif
Insert 21: Wagner: Siegfried vs. Fafner
Insert 22: Shore: Five-beat/Fellowship
Insert 23: Wagner: Brünnhilde’s Love (Siegfried Idyll)
Insert 24: Shore: The Grace of Undómiel
Insert 25: Wagner: Brünnhilde the Valkyrie & Siegfried's Heroism
Insert 26: Shore: Shire Theme (flute setting)
Insert 27: Wagner: Siegfried and Brünnhilde the Woman
Insert 28: Shore: The Death of Boromir
Selection 11: Wagner: Siegfried's Funeral Music
Selection 12: Wagner: Finale

And between everything is the narration that keeps track of the story elements, and the development of the leitmotivic material. But it's the music that carries the show, not the words. All is in service of these two composers. Obviously, it's quite a balancing act!

As I say, this was huge fun for me. It was a chance to dig into this music once again and find something entirely new to talk about. It was also a chance to program music that's rarely heard like this. In the case of Shore, this will be the first time some of this music has been heard live without overlaid sound effects and dialogue. And Wagner's Ring score is notoriously difficult to bring into the concert world because it's so interwoven with its lengthy plot. I don't know that some of these pieces have ever been done outside of the opera hall in this manner.

Of Rings and Myths is on the Kentucky Symphony's schedule for the evening of Saturday, October 8, 2011. Handling the vocal end of the evening will be the KSO Chorale featuring soprano Kara Shay Thompson and tenor Ric Furman. I'll take the role of narrator for the night and James Cassidy will conduct the gathered forces. Tickets and additional details are available at the KSO's official website. (I'll also be signing The Music of the Lord of the Rings that weekend in conjunction with the concert -- details to come.) If this performance is the success we hope it will be, we'd very much like to see the show tour as have previous Rings shows. This is a fantastic way to bring this music to orchestras that aren't equipped for the multimedia experience of the LOTR Symphony or the Live to Projection performances. And per our usual, the goal is to create something that's satisfying to fans of both Rings, musicians and non-musicians, young and old.

If you're in the area, please come join us! If not, this one may be worth a road trip! More to come ...
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