Sunday, September 21, 2008

Orc Week

Thank God that's over.

I thought Handel's Messiah was gruelling because of the sheer amount of choral music in it and the number of vocally challenging bits even towards the end. I thought the Brahms German Requiem was exhausting after I sang it at Carnegie Hall on a stage so crowded that I could scarcely move. I thought the Faure Requiem was disagreeable because it called for an ensemble so much smaller than ours that, in order not to overbalance the orchestra, we had to sing as it were with one lung tied behind our backs. But doing Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings Symphony now holds the kewpie as the piece of music of all the world that I feel most relieved to be done with.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed it this past Friday and Saturday at Powell Hall, the first in a new "SLSO Presents" series that will also include, later this season, a screening of The Wizard of Oz with the live orchestra performing the soundtrack. Both performances were sold out, and even our "dress rehearsal" on Wednesday was reasonably well attended. One might regard this as a great boon to musical culture in this city, since many in the audience had never darkened the door of Powell Hall before.

Leave it to me to make the curmudgeonly remark: "We'll see what a boon it is when the receipts for Beethoven's Ninth and Verdi's Requiem are counted." And if the results at that time are what I expect - after last season's mediocre box office for Haydn's divine Creation and Rossini's sublime Stabat Mater, followed by a sold-out weekend of Orff's ribald Carmina Burana - I may revise my curmudgeonly remark to: "There is no accounting for taste."

Anyway, back to the LOTR Symphony. Why did I find this piece exhausting? It started with lousy chorus parts. Though the piece requires the chorus to sing four-part, six-, eight-, eleven-, and maybe even thirteen-part chords, the chorus parts were doggedly crammed into a two-staff format, like a piano part - betraying, perhaps, that the composer wrote it at the keyboard. The early stages of preparation were largely given to figuring out which singers would sing which notes. We had to deal with every imaginable divisi, from a two-part men/women split to SATB to "high-middle-low" divisions of each sex to two-, three-, and four-part divisis within each section of the chorus - and there were many passages in which the "road map" changed continually from one chord to the next. For a piece that has been performed hundreds of times around the world, to sold-out auditoriums, it is frankly astonishing that a truly choral score has never been published.

Between the passages in which each choir member struggled to remember which note he/she was supposed to sing, were long stretches of rests during which the orchestra played without vocal accompaniment. Again, the chorus parts left much to be desired. We had very sketchy orchestral cues at best; more often, we had nothing to clue us into our next entrance (or sit/stand cue) except the number of measures, in varying tempos and meters, which we must count. Instrumentalists have no trouble with this sort of thing, but choir singers are seldom expected to count hundreds of bars of rest without an orchestral cue to prepare them for when they are supposed to come in next. At times, our score gave us cues for orchestral lines many measures away from anything we had to sing, followed by bars and bars of rest that we had to count before coming in. This kind of thing seems worse than inconsiderate; it seems mean-spirited. Especially when our entrance is in the middle of a dissonant crunch and the conductor is beating a rapid 7/4 or some similarly daft gesture, and we are hard put to pull our next note out of the air, let alone spot the precise beat we are supposed to come in on.

Besides, we also had to sing text in languages that have never been spoken by real populations. The lyrics under the notes alternated between the proper spelling of the words in their fictitious languages and a bizarre sort of phonetic spelling that caused even more confusion. The guide that came with the music, and that was supposed to help us understand what we were singing, did not actually match what was in the score. And the published recording of the work deviated from the score in many ways.

In spite of all that, I think we did rather well. But on my own part, I can say that our success was not entirely unmixed, and that success was bought at the price of a great deal of nerve-wracking anxiety. We got a lot of help from an expert in Elven languages, who by the way sat right next to me on the stage. It must have been a trial for him, too, though. For he had to bear with the Howard Shore Recension of the Linguistic Inventions of Tolkien. Shore, we learned as my stage neighbor drilled us in our Sindarin, Dwarvish, Rohirric, and so forth, had taken considerable liberties with the text, tweaking it as he saw fit to achieve the musical effects he wanted, and thereby garbling the winged words somewhat. Nevertheless, a fan of the book and/or film could recognize some of the words and names that we sang, such as Durin, Shadowfax, Osgiliath, A Elbereth Gilthoniel, and Anduril. I believe we also sang the "One ring to rule them all" ditty in the Black Speech, for which no doubt our eternal souls are now forfeit.

All this effort was eventually overshadowed by the production values of the performance. The chorus sang under a screen on which still photos (mainly of design sketches from the movie) were projected, and awash in colored mood-lighting that sometimes made it hard for some singers to read their scores. Together with the St. Louis Children's Choirs and several instrumental and vocal soloists, we were miked and amplified, with a pair of experts at the controls, ensuring that everything was perfectly balanced. The foyer was decorated with wax figures of orcs and ring-wraiths, so that members of the audience could have themselves photographed by them; and some audience members came in costume. For example, one lady was spotted in the garb of an Ent.

When I left the hall after Friday night's performance I overheard concertgoers having animated discussions, not of the rich musical performance, but of the finer points of Tolkien's plot and how it was similar to or different from the film and the symphony. I actually heard someone in the parking lot pronouncing "Cirith Ungol" correctly, and was shocked to realize that I - even after having sung in the piece - didn't know what musical passage related to it. After Saturday's performance I chatted with one of the violinists who confessed that she had never seen the movie, and had no idea whether or not the music reflected its character. I seriously wonder how satisfying the concert could have been for people who did not know the film. For when you take away all the thrilling, frightening, and melancholy associations of the story, what is really left except a vaguely silly game with pretend languages and no less than two hours of overblown and basically formless music?

I tell you the truth. I volunteered to be in the group that sang this, but I came to regret it. I wore myself down to my last nerve trying to keep count of the rests, searching for my next note, and trying not to forget which nonsense syllable came next. I was nearly exhausted before the final performance began, and as each movement ended the realization that I had sung it for the last time came to me as a real pleasure. I might have enjoyed it more if I had been in the audience, under no pressure, watching the pictures on the screen. But as it was, I couldn't help feeling that I was in the middle of something that required far more effort than it deserved.

The soloists were heroic. The guest conductor, Ludwig Wicki, milked amazing sounds out of the orchestra - albeit one that contained many unusual instruments, among them a truckload of percussion objects of which I couldn't name half. There was an Irish whistle, a pan flute, a musette, a cimbalom, harps, "distressed" piano, celesta, hammered dulcimers, and a Hardanger fiddle. There were tamtams, tom-toms, tubular bells, snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, funky rattle things, and this scary-looking wooden thing that made the weirdest noise. There were two boy soprano soloists, a pair of soloists from the chorus, and a 19-year-old beauty named Kaitlyn Lusk who got to channel Annie Lennox into a microphone. And there were spots, pictures, high-end sound mixers, and colored lights to help everything along. From the sound of the ovation it couldn't be called a failure. But from the sound of the music, I'm not sure it should be called a Symphony either.

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