The warmest day of the year so far and the hottest ticket in town… In other words Saturday April 24th and a stunning live performance of Howard Shore’s complete score for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers at the Royal Albert Hall, live to a high definition projection of Peter Jackson’s epic film.
This was the second night of the UK premiere performance of the audio visual spectacle, which is itself of course the second of three shows that are slowly winging (or is that ringing?) their way around the world. Maestro Ludwig Wicki is the master of the Rings music, entrusted with Howard Shore’s score pages since the show’s inception in 2006. Last April he premiered The Fellowship of the Ring to a sold out house and this second act proved just as popular with not one but two full, and very excited, houses.
As I took my seat within the mighty space – it always takes my breath away – my eyes were of course immediately drawn to the massive projection screen hanging above the empty stage, which was bathed in crimson light. It was empty save for a lone timpanist, the first of the London Philharmonic to prepare and tune up, whose solitary ‘performance’ of rolls and thumps added an ominous air to the proceedings (helped by the blood-red glow shrouding him).
With a three hour-plus film to screen the start time for the show was half an hour earlier than that of your average concert and in no time at all the massive ensemble, including members of the London Voices and London Oratory School Schola, were gathered. With a short round of applause our conductor took his position as the lights dimmed. A hush fell around the hall, breaths held and skin tingling with goosebumps as those now very familiar opening chords played out and the opening titles began. Our night in Middle Earth had begun…
From my rather wonderful vantage point I was able to not only take in the full scope of the drama unfolding on screen, but also that taking place among the orchestra, tightly packed beneath it and working their magic. This time I was able to appreciate the intricacies of their performance and the work involved for Maestro Wicki. The Fellowship of the Ring was an altogether different experience as my view of the film and the stage, all encompassing as it was, was so broad and head-on that I very quickly forgot that there was an orchestra there at all. This time when I heard unusual sounds I was able to focus in on where it was coming from and so it was great to see the battery of percussion – particularly the great clanging iron used in the Isengard cues – not to mention the Cimbalom, so crucial to bringing to life the appearance of Gollum in ‘My Precious’ and the earthy wood block breathing life into the lumbering, but entirely likeable Treebeard.
Shore’s second act score builds of course on the first and as a trio of works they each get bigger and better. With that in mind I was very much looking forward to hearing The Two Towers live. The playful sounds of the shire, while very much in the background, are still present, while the Fellowship’s famous theme is used sparingly. It’s most glorious turn comes as Legolas rides his shield down the steps of Helms Deep – one of a scattering of light hearted moments among an otherwise shadowy and doom-laden story.
The second score is represented in the main part of course by the new theme for Rohan, which gets some of its most impressive renderings in ‘Edoras’ and ‘Théoden King’ – as Bernard Hill’s restored Monarch lifts his sword, reclaiming control of his throne in the golden hall. The orchestra really made the hairs rise here, while in the previous cue ‘Gandalf the White’ Shore’s gorgeous music for Shadofax the Horse marked the first real scintillation for me personally.
With three hours-plus of music, there are many highlights and indeed some surprises. The nerve-tingling cue ‘The Dead Marshes’ was an early standout thanks to the creepy glissandi vocalisations and whimpers from the female members of the chorus… such things perhaps get lost in the mix of the film itself and sometimes on album. While the dialogue and effects tracks are very much present and correct (the former supported with subtitles), the music is very much on top in the live mix, so the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the score really do come to the fore.
The choir performed absolutely brilliantly, as did the boys choir. I commend the latter not just for their lovely performance in the second half, but also for having to sit on stage throughout the entire first act without singing! The boy soprano who took on the solo duties was in fine voice during ‘The Last March of the Ents’ and ‘Théoden Rides Forth’. The latter has always been one of my favourite cues in the score, so it was thrilling to hear it in its complete form live. Indeed the music for the great battle for Helms Deep offered some of the most impressive music, with Maestro Wicki’s click track screen revealing to me just how unwieldy some of that later action writing can be. He is of course well used to it by now and had the LPO literally in the palm of his hand – or at least at the tips of his fingers.
There was a moment as the gathered warriors at Helms Deep stopped and listened to the approaching Uruk-Hai legion. No music played, just the distant thuds of ten thousand pairs of ugly feet edging closer. I looked out across the hall and up to the highest galleries and it felt as if we too were waiting with baited breath for the battle to commence, musically at least. With a series of white circular blips and two coloured strips running across his click screen, Maestro Wicki counted in his own army and raised his baton to give the signal for them to begin… and they fought admirably.
While a selection of soloists performed vocal duties in the original score, just one took on the roles for the live show. Ann de Renais is no stranger to Middle Earth, having performed vocal selections from each score as part of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings Symphony. She shone once again in The Two Towers, deftly revealing her range as she sang out the woes of Aragorn and Arwen, not to mention the emotional fall of Haldir at Helms Deep. Later, atop the closing credits, she took on ‘Gollum’s Song’ and did a brilliant job. Careful not to mimic Emiliana Torrini’s original vocal, she was able to create the same sadness and colour with her own very fine voice.
And so with the final credits climbing the massive screen, we rose from our seats to applaud – quite rightly – an amazing feat. The original cast of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers recreated quite exactly the magic of his dazzling second work. Shore himself took a bow alongside a beaming Ludwig Wicki, as they and the performers basked in the glory of a job well done.
They will of course all reunite in September for The Return of the King; I for one cannot wait to see and hear the final and most glorious chapter in the series. These shows absolutely illustrate the strange and beautiful symbiotic relationship of film and music…
Originally published at Music from the Movies.com, April 2010.