By Web Behrens
Special to the Tribune
Published October 3, 2004

The members of the World Festival Symphony Orchestra are accustomed to performing on strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. It’s just the specific forms of these instruments that might feel a little foreign to the musicians as they rehearse this week: Ney flute. Hardanger fiddle. Bodhran drum.

Members of the Chicago Children’s Choir, meanwhile, have sung in many languages over the years: German, Italian, French, Russian, Japanese. They’ve even sung in one “dead” language — Latin — but not until now have they tackled a mythical one.

How do you say “impressive” in Elvish?

These occurrences become the norm for the musicians performing “The Lord of the Rings Symphony,” which will unfold at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday and Saturday as part of a tour spanning four continents. The event will likely prove a first for many audience members, as the phenomenal reach of the blockbuster films extends into the concert hall, luring many to their first experience before a serious orchestra.

“Anywhere in the world it’s been performed — Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, London, Sydney, Taipei — it’s all been done locally,” says composer Howard Shore. “To me, that’s the real joy of it, awakening interest in symphony orchestras.”

Local performers

“The Lord of the Rings Symphony” requires about 225 people to perform its six movements. Ninety-eight are members of the World Festival Symphony Orchestra, an organization of local musicians who regularly perform with orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera, Ravinia Festival and Chicagoland Pops. (They come together as needed for events such as the Andrea Bocelli or Three Tenors concerts.) A similar number of performers come from the Chicago Children’s Choir and Concert Choir, a multicultural group of 9- to 18-year-olds.

From city to city along the tour, the music is generally played, sung and conducted by local artists. The exception is Sissel, the mononymic Scandinavian blessed with an incandescent soprano. Shore tapped her to sing most of the solos, including “Gollum’s Song” and “Into the West.”

Unlike many people attached to the project, Sissel has very little familiarity with the films or J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. Before her first performance in March, she recalls, “all my friends told me, `Oh Sissel, you have to read the books. You have to read the books!’ I said, `Ah, well, it’s a little bit late now.’ I feel like, through the music, I already know everything.”

One other presence sometimes appears onstage: Shore himself. Although he’s collaborating again with “Rings” director Peter Jackson on “King Kong,” Shore appears for a talk before the concerts (free) and at a champagne reception afterward (an additional $75). Shore will not, however, hold the baton at the Auditorium; German conductor Markus Huber will.

Shore’s resume includes several film scores each for directors Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg and David Fincher. Over the decades, he built a reputation for diversity, from his early TV work as music director for “Saturday Night Live” in the ’70s to a harmolodic collaboration with jazz artist Ornette Coleman on the 1992 soundtrack to “Naked Lunch.” Still, it wasn’t until the unparalleled success of “The Lord of the Rings” that Shore won mainstream recognition (in the form of the Grammy and three Academy Awards) and began to attain name recognition.

He also inherited an international base of devoted Tolkien fans, who have heartily embraced him along with the films. They line up for his autograph and treat him like a rock star — no small adjustment for a 57-year-old composer.

“People do want to meet you,” he allows with understatement. “It’s very gratifying.”

“I’ve been writing music for a long time,” says Shore, a Toronto native and New York resident, during a phone conversation from England, where the two-hour symphony was recently performed by the London Philharmonic. Everything he’s learned in his life led him to “The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “I’ve been writing music since [I was 10], and I’m in my late 50s. So this piece took 40 years to write. It actually took four, but you know, it’s a culmination of 40 years of work in music.

Learning the way

“When you started, you were just the hobbit with the ring, saying, `I will do this. I will take the ring to Mordor, although I do not know the way,'” he quips. But before long, he learned how to navigate his way through Middle-earth, seizing upon Tolkien’s invented languages, as well as actual ancient instruments, to help evoke the sound of this mythical world of the past.

“The beauty of the languages [Tolkien] created is they had a certain sound,” says Shore. “So all right, so it’s about sound — once it is about sound, that takes you into the musical realm.” The choruses performing the Symphony across the world all learn Elvish phonetically. Shore used the languages and instruments as he composed leitmotifs for the many different characters, races and locations in the film — more than 50 in all.

“Part of the reason it works in this symphonic setting is because the structure holds up on its own,” says Doug Adams, a Frankfort, Ill., musician and author of the upcoming book, “The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films.” “A lot of times, film music is a bunch of stingers for when something scary happens, or now it’s happy because everybody’s in love. This one brings its own structure to the picture.”

“There’s a different style of music for each culture of characters: hobbit, elf, dwarf,” adds Adams, who will appear with Shore during the Q&A before the concerts. “If you go to the symphony performance, it’s very much like an abstract version of Tolkien’s story.”

As an extra treat for film fans, the Symphony will include projected images that correspond to the music: original sketches and storyboard art by artists Alan Lee and John Howe.

Although in many ways he completed “Rings” in March, after composing and conducting the final notes for the “Return of the King” extended edition DVD, side projects connected to his masterpiece are keeping Shore busy.

“My main focus right now is the box set,” he says, referring to an intended nine-CD collection he hopes to release next year that will include every note from the movies. “My dream is to put everything out, all of the music in the films, plus [Doug Adams’] book, plus some treats for the fans — you know, some rarities.”

Meanwhile he can present the symphony. It might only be a fraction of the total 12-hour composition, but it’s not just preserved on celluloid or pressed on a disc. “Here now is a living, breathing concert piece, and there’s a certain music joy to that,” Shore says. “I mean, that’s really what making music is all about.

“The Lord of the Rings Symphony” will be performed at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. A pre-show Q&A with composer Howard Shore and local author Doug Adams is at 6:30 each night, free to those with tickets to the performance, which cost $35-$80; 312-902-1500.

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