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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

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Howard Shore, Canada's big baton in Hollywood, brings his Tolkien music to Ottawa

Steven Mazey
The Ottawa Citizen

Elves, hobbits, dwarves, Orcs and other creatures from Tolkien land are about to visit the National Arts Centre, and they're bringing their music with them.

You'll see them there Thursday and Friday, when the NAC Orchestra performs The Lord of the Rings: a Symphony in Six Movements for Orchestra and Chorus. It's a condensed, two-hour version of the music that Canadian composer Howard Shore wrote for the hugely popular film trilogy by New Zealand director Peter Jackson.

While the orchestra and choirs perform the symphony (each of the six movements corresponds to a part of the epic), Tolkien-inspired drawings will be projected onto a big screen above the orchestra for a sort of pop-up-book concert experience.

The symphony had its debut in New Zealand in 2003. Shore says it was a challenge to cut his three film scores down to two hours of highlights for the concert version. After all, he spent more than three years working on the movies and wrote more than 12 hours of music. He took home three Academy Awards, a Grammy and a Golden Globe award for his efforts.

Trimming it down for the concert hall meant "putting aside pieces that you love. You realize you can't put them in the two-hour piece. You learn to give things up for the greater good of the symphony," Shore, 57, told the Montreal Gazette when the Montreal Symphony performed the piece early this year.

Shore, who will be in Ottawa for Thursday's performance, will give a talk in the NAC Studio Friday at 12:30 p.m. about writing music for the films and will answer questions from the audience about his working methods.

It's not the first time the composer's movie music has received the concert-hall treatment at the NAC. In 1998, as part of a new-music festival, the orchestra performed Shore's spare, eerie music for the David Cronenberg film Crash.

Since its debut in New Zealand, the Lord of the Rings Symphony has been a hit with audiences in cities that include Philadelphia, Atlanta, Columbus and Seattle, with performances coming up in London, Tokyo, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The forces include a full orchestra, a mixed choir, a boys' choir and instrumental and vocal soloists. The Ottawa performance will be conducted by Alexander Mickelthwaite and feature the Canadian debut of singer Hayley Westenra, a fast-rising 17-year-old soprano from New Zealand in the Charlotte Church classical/ crossover mould. Westenra became the fastest selling classical artist of all time in the U.K. when her album Pure made the Top 10 pop charts. She'll perform the songs originally performed on the soundtrack by Annie Lennox and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian.

It was Shore's idea to include projections of images by Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe during the performances. Lee created the watercolour illustrations in the commemorative edition of The Lord of the Rings and provided conceptual sketches for the movie producers. Howe has created cover art for Tolkien books and images for calendars.

The drawings are like "bookmarks" for the audience during the music, and provide "a sense of place -- that we've arrived in Lothlorien, or we are now approaching Edoras," Shore told the Gazette.

A native of Toronto, Shore studied at Boston's Berklee School of Music and played sax in the Canadian band Lighthouse from 1969 to 1972. From 1975 to 1980, he was the music director for Saturday Night Live.

His first film score was for Canadian filmmaker Cronenberg's The Brood in 1979. Shore has since worked on 10 films with Cronenberg, including Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly and Crash. His credits with other directors include Philadelphia, Big, The Silence of the Lambs and The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's upcoming biography of Howard Hughes, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

But Lord of the Rings has been his biggest and most demanding project so far.

He had read the Tolkien books in the 1960s, and recently said, "I was ready to tackle something epic, detailed and complex ... It was an opportunity to write music to, arguably, one of the great books of the 20th century and work with one of the great filmmakers of the 21st century. Tolkien spent 14 years writing the books. Three-and-a-half years (for writing the music) is not a lot of time."

Shore's music for the three movies includes a wide range of styles and instrumental forces to suggest the different worlds and characters of Tolkien's novels. There is Celtic-flavoured music for the Hobbits, Eastern-tinged music for the Elves and angry, percussive sounds for the Orcs, for example.

While the concert version of Shore's music has been a hit with Rings fans, at least one critic was not convinced that it belonged in a concert hall or that it deserved to be called a symphony.

"To call this two-hour-plus peat bog of excerpts from the popular films a symphony is to ignore the meaning of the word," wrote veteran Gazette critic Arthur Kaptainis after the Montreal performance.

"This sequence of scenes ... does nothing but meander from effect to effect ..." he wrote, adding that "the fourth movement began with the mandatory rewrite of Holst's Mars and ended with something that sounded like an outtake from the next album by Celine Dion."

Still, the critic admitted that some of Shore's effects were impressive, and that "the young Tolkien buffs who packed in found it all amply to their liking."

Shore said one of the things he has enjoyed about the concert performances has been the community involvement and participation of local children's choirs in the Rings experience.

"I get letters from educators and teachers about boys in school who now think it's cool to sing in a choir because they see boys singing in Lord of the Rings."

NACO presents The Lord of the Rings Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Howard Shore will give a talk Friday at 12:30 p.m. in the NAC Studio. 755-1111.


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© The Ottawa Citizen 2004

News item advised by Roger Mansbridge

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