I attended the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings Symphony last night at the Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis. It was one of the most enjoyable listening experiences I’ve had in a long time. Joining the Orchestra for the performance were the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the St. Louis Children’s Choir & Concert Choir.
The work itself is divided into six movements, corresponding with the six ‘books’ of Tolkein’s novel. I’m not certain ‘movements’ is the correct term. The program notes list them as parts, although the advertisement and the two-page detail sheet handed out with the program list them as ‘movements’. Being a symphony, I was not expecting to applaud between movements. Lest you think me a heathen, it seems the rest of the audience was not expecting to, either. When the first movement ended, rather abruptly I might add, there was a lengthy pause. The conductor, Mr. Ludwig Wicki stood at the podium, baton raised, staring at the now-silent symphony, who in turn stared back at him. An occasional cough broke the uneasy silence. Eventually, someone broke into applause, and the entire audience joined in. At this point, Mr. Wicki took a bow and, as the applause died down, began the second movement.
A word, however, about the first movement, and the symphony in general. A projection screen was placed above the orchestra, which provided the audience and the conductor a steady stream of still images of illustrations from Tolkhein’s novel. This were mostly pen-and-ink sketches of various scenes, interspersed with an image of the map of Middle Earth. They were not scenes from the film. The conductor watched this board as the symphony progressed, as did we in the audience. At the finish of the first movement, A Knife in the Dark, the screen suddenly went blank, and the conductor stopped, baton aloft. It almost appeared as if a screen malfunction had halted the performance. There was no smooth ending. It was, I suppose, intended to end as swiftly and unexpectedly as a knife in the dark, and it did, catching the audience by surprise. Perhaps they were waiting for the resumption of the movement following projection repairs. I tend to believe, however, that they did not anticipate the expectation that they were supposed to applaud between movements. I believe such applause was fashionable in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but I don’t believe it to be normal now. In fact, Beethoven and others did not include a pause between movements to allow time for such a distraction.
Nonetheless, the second movement began and was performed beautifully. However, if the first movement ended abruptly, the second ended anything but. The movement was, by my estimation, about thirty-five to forty minutes long. The fiery Bridge at Khazad-Dum appearing about halfway through the piece, followed by the more tranquil pieces Lothlorien, Gandalf’s Lament, Farewell to Lorien, The Great River, and \The Breaking of the Fellowship. Each of these pieces included a finality that lured one into the sense that the movement was ending, only to be followed by the next. The true finale, however, was marked by the song In Dreams, sung by boy soprano Gilman Plitt. The applause that followed was very enthusiastic.
An intermission followed the second movement, which was quite welcome. The first and second movements together lasted a little over an hour.
After the intermission, There was tremendous applause as the soprano Kaitlyn Lusk took her place, followed by Mr. Wicki. The nineteen-year-old Ms. Lusk has a beautiful voice, and has, according to the notes, been a featured soloist in perfromances of the Lord of the Rings Symphony since the fall of 2004. I can understand why. I was overwhelmed by her singing.
Movements three of four were beautifully performed. Ms. Lusk’s performance of Gollum’s Song at the end of the fourth movement was absolutely flawless. Had Mr. Shore selected her to perform that song on the original soundtrack, rather than Emiliana Torrini, I would not have found it necessary to fast forward past the song when listening to the soundtrack.
The audience, apparently fearful of another social faux pax, was very quick to applaud the end of each movement now. Too enthusiastic, in fact, as half the audience committed yet another when they broke into applause during a two-second pause between The Return of the King and The Grey Havens during the sixth movement. When the sixth movement was ended, however, with a breathtaking performance of Into the West by Ms. Lusk, the performance was followed by the longest standing ovation of which I have ever had the priviledge of being a part.
Quod scripsi, scripsi.