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Bored of 'The Rings'

A two-hour symphony adapted from the movie trilogy's score demands a wizard's patience.

September 23, 2004|Adam Baer | Special to The Times

Film scores that rise to the occasion of artful concert music are nothing new to Hollywood: Consider Leonard Bernstein's "On the Waterfront," Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" or John Corigliano's more recent "The Red Violin."

Unfortunately, the fight-and-chase melodramas written by Howard Shore for Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy never ascended to the level of artful movie compositions. From the beginning, they suggested strained derivations of works by Carl Orff ("Carmina Burana") and Ralph Vaughan Williams ("Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis"). That they have now been processed into the ambitiously expansive six-movement "symphony" that debuted Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl exacerbates the problem: It taints the cheesy delight they offer as aural aides to beloved adventure fantasies.

"LOTR," as the trilogy reigns in wonky fan circles, brags myriad narrative comparisons to Richard Wagner's "Ring." But in scoring Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels, Shore didn't follow Wagner's lead of weaving innovative leitmotifs into harmonically rich narrative works of contrapuntal elegance. He instead created recognizable tunes bathed in cultural idioms (Celtic-sounding flutes; Semitic harmonic-minor scales) and layered extravagant effects around them.

In "The LOTR Symphony," macabre chorus grunts, Tolkien-language chants and bland orchestral filler take the place of intriguing motive-development. Seldom does anything more sophisticated than theme-and-accompaniment occur. And after 30 minutes of cinematic nostalgia (the work lasts more than two hours), a listener can easily check out.

Performed Tuesday along with video images of Middle-earth maps and hairy-looking black-and-white "LOTR" sketches by Alan Lee and John Howe, the piece sang and fought just dramatically enough in the hands of conductor John Mauceri. It featured the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra with astute wind solos as well as hearty contributions from the Chapman University Choir, Hollywood Bowl High School Choir and Los Angeles Children's Chorus.

The soloists included Carolyn Betty (impressive operatic soprano), Susan Egan (Annie Lennox-like Broadway singer) and Eugene Olea (high-pitched boy soprano with guts of steel). Two of them provided highlights: Betty's buttery voice offered substance to soulful modal laments while Olea's gentle vibrato-less tone hung in the nearly Celtic night air. The work also enjoyed impressive orchestration: At one point in the second half, meaty gamelan-like plucks rang out above mystical shushing sounds as the strings segued into arpeggiated harmonics that mimicked panpipes.

For all that effort, the result wasn't so much a symphony made of formally structured movements with different narrative roles as an inconsistent and repetitive patchwork of tunes culled from each film's score.

Before Tuesday's performance, Mauceri admitted to inspiring Shore's arrangement; he helped him turn 11 hours of film music into a "comprehensive and comprehensible" concert work. The duo might do better to trim more -- getting it down to 45 minutes, humbly renaming it "The LOTR Suite" and letting it live as a tuneful and marketable film-score remembrance.

Inflating it as a serious narrative musical achievement worth a full night's attention is simply too Hollywood.

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