Vancouver Symphony Orchestra brings the sounds of Middle Earth to the stage

Canadian composer Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores helped bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s rich fantasy world to life

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      Many film scores have embedded themselves deeply in popular culture. Who can hear the music from Jaws or Psycho, for example, without instantly being flooded with images from those classic movies? Few scores have become truly iconic as quickly as the ones Canadian composer Howard Shore created for director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, however.

      Shore’s music for the series garnered a number of awards, including three Oscars, three Grammys, and two Golden Globes, and it has been showcased in several successful live versions.

      One of these, The Lord of the Rings Symphony, will bring followers of Frodo Baggins and company to the Orpheum Theatre for a concert featuring the combined forces of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Bach Choir, and the Vancouver Bach Children’s Chorus. They will be joined by conductor Markus Huber and soprano Kaitlyn Lusk.

      The concert version is a symphonic piece that clocks in at just over two hours, with two movements each dedicated to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. This has been condensed from the score’s full length of 10-and-a-half hours. That’s a lot of music, and Shore admits that when he agreed to take his part in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic to the screen, he did so without first considering the full scope of the project.

      “I was a Tolkien fan, but I hadn’t thought about the actual length of time involved in creating a piece that mirrored Tolkien’s story,” the Toronto-born composer says when the Georgia Straight reaches him in New York, where he now lives. “The work that I did on the score took three years and nine months. So I think when I started, somewhere in the back of my mind I realized the time commitment and the work involved, but it was a rather large, daunting task, so I didn’t think about it in too big a picture. I just followed the footprints of the story very carefully and tried to break things into smaller sections. I worked on very small parts of the story—gestures and small scenes—at first.”

      By the time he was finished, Shore had created a score that brought Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life in an aptly grand and sweeping fashion, incorporating musical styles spanning centuries and bridging continents. Each of the saga’s cultures was given its own set of leitmotifs, with the orcs assigned harsh and percussive sounds, the humans accompanied by brass flourishes, and the hobbits presented with lilting Celtic tones. Choirs and soloists sing in Modern and Old English, along with languages of Tolkien’s invention, including Quenya, Adí»naic, and Black Speech.

      “I worked carefully with the three screenwriters—Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson,” Shore recalls. “It was a way to tell the story using Tolkien’s languages to add clarity to the story, so you understood the difference between Rivendell and Lothlórien, and between Rohan and Gondor. And by giving the cultures—and certain objects—themes and motifs, it was a way to tell the story clearly. Lord of the Rings is considered one of the most complex fantasy worlds ever created. And in three films you wanted to tell the story to people who might not have read the book, and they had to understand the story and be brought up to speed on the history of Middle Earth and things like that. The music played that role of being a character in the film that kept you abreast of what was unfolding in the story, and who characters were and how they related to each other, and how the cultures related to each other.”

      In recent years, Shore has composed music for such wide-ranging cinematic fare as The Aviator, Doubt, and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, but he’s about to find himself immersed in the world of elves, dwarves, and wizards yet again. After years in development hell, Jackson is set to helm a two-part adaptation of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s first published novel.

      The Hobbit is a film we’ve wanted to make for many, many years, and we’ve talked about it going back to 2002, I think,” Shore says. “When we were making The Two Towers, Peter and I talked about making The Hobbit. It’s a story we really love. We’re really happy that it looks like it’s finally getting started in filming. It’s something I’ll be working on over the next three years.”

      Sounds as if Shore is quite ready for another adventure.

      The VSO performs The Lord of the Rings Symphony at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday and Sunday (November 27 and 28).

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