Music Review: Grand Rapids Symphony Preforms "The Return of the King"

A Music Review By Stefan Vlahov

Almost nine years after the trilogy’s final film was released theatrically, and five years after the final chapters of the films and soundtracks got the ‘extended’ treatment, The Lord of the Rings remains ingrained in the conscious of regular film-goers everywhere. But there is another group of people who’ve become equally acclimated with the trilogy – classical music lovers. The original score for the trilogy written by composer Howard Shore was as much a part of the movie as the actors and special effects, and it was infused in almost every frame of the trilogy’s 10 hour (extended) running time. Instead of overwhelming movie-goers, it became a part of the experience. While Harry Potter fans were anticipating things like what Voldemort would look like, Rings nuts were thinking about how Shore would approach scoring the Battle for Helm’s Deep, or what theme he would write for the character of Gollum.

While a soundtrack CD of the music as heard on the theatrical film releases was available for each film, rumors started coming out of the Shore camp that much more music was composed that didn’t make the albums. Lo and behold, four long years later the so-called “Complete Recordings” were all available to own – each coming a year after the last. Meanwhile, Howard Shore had performed many live symphonic concerts all over the world – from Wellington, New Zealand to New York City. Of course Shore had a day job – composing scores for other movies, and what eventually happened was local symphonies took up the baton and began performing the score themselves.

I was lucky enough to attend one of these concerts just a few months ago (as of this writing). The performers were the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the venue was DeVos Performance Hall in downtown Grand Rapids. The film score they were performing was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It was an interesting set up – the theatrical version of the film played on a big screen behind a full symphony. The choir was behind and below the ceiling-mounted screen. The movie studio, in this case New Line Cinema, provides groups like the GR Symphony copies of the film with the score missing – it is the symphony’s job then to perform the music live.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is largely seen as the most accomplished of the three film scores (no small feat), and GR Symphony more than does it justice. Not once during the concert did the symphony fall behind the film, which would have been a cardinal sin, or deliver a performance that didn’t fit within Shore’s original writing. I was amazed by how religiously Shore’s notes were followed, from the low rumble in the beginning of “The Palantir” to the touching emotional highs of “A Far Green Country”. The choir vocals are also worth noting, as some of the more powerful full-voice performances (as in “The Mouth of Sauron”) packed quite a punch, and not a note was missed.

The solo vocals, featured in tracks like “The Eagles” and “For Frodo” were also excellent though this was the part where the live performance differed from the original recording the most. Still, these vocals didn’t sound like mere covers – as “Days of the Ring” showed, one does not need to sound like Annie Lennox to get across the emotional contents of her lyrics. Another way in which the live performance differed from the one you’ll probably listen to while viewing the films is that the chorus is a lot louder than the one remastered for the film’s theater and Blu-Ray releases (subtitles were turned on for the performance). This was a nice ‘bonus’ for me as it allowed me to pay more attention to the texture of the vocal, if not the actual Elf language used in the songs.

Another highlight was that the orchestra kept going over the end credits, which constitute “Days of the Ring”, and I was reminded of the many cast and crew that I need to be grateful for creating The Lord of the Rings and turning it into an once-in-a-lifetime gift that keeps on giving. I’m not sure if any other film score will have the staying power of this masterpiece. When so many composers are abandoning theme-based scores championed by such greats as John Williams and the late Jerry Goldsmith, Shore chose to go old school and  filled his score with many memorable movements and fully established themes. It is never repetitive, never boring, and a few moments will have any listener overwhelmed with emotion. The live performance if you can catch it at a location near you, and the “Complete Recordings” CDs are both highly recommended!

Score: A+
Live Performance: A

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