Lord of the Rings Symphony | Powell Symphony Hall

ludwig_wicki.jpgLudwig Wicki will be the conductor, and the audience will be treated to a spectacle that features over 200 musicians and singers, including the SLSO and Chorus, as well as projected images throughout the performance.





Fri.-Sat, Sept. 19-20, 2008 / 7:30 p.m.

Tickets and info: 314/534-1700

When Howard Shore’s dramatic music for the Lord of theRings film trilogy comes to Powell Hall this weekend with two sold-out shows to kick off the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 129th season, it will mark the first time the score has been played here as a full program, and one of the relatively rare occasions that music lovers can hear great film music performed live, period. Shore’s Oscar-winning score is rich and diverse, conveying an astonishing range of emotions to immerse the viewer in the world of Middle-Earth that Tolkien created. Ludwig Wicki will be the conductor, and the audience will be treated to a spectacle that features over 200 musicians and singers, including the SLSO and Chorus, as well as projected images throughout the performance. One of the musicians conjuring this epic sound will be Christian Woehr, the assistant principal viola or "third chair" in the SLSO. Woehr has been there since 1986, having won an audition in St. Louis after a stint in the Rochester Philharmonic.

"I’m an orchestra brat," said the amiable musician during arecent phone chat. "My parents were orchestra musicians in the Pittsburgh Symphony."

Besides his credentials as an experienced musician, Woehr is a devoted Tolkien and LOTR fan. He said he discovered the literary trilogy many years ago, when he had the opportunity to attend music festivals in Aspen, Colorado.

"When I finished school, I went out to Aspen directly, I didn’t even wait for graduation," said Woehr. "I built this hut several miles back, above Aspen. Lived there for two months, just to chill out and learn how to do nothing. I became a backpacker…it’s part of my makeup now. About that time, I discovered the trilogy. I called my place Rivendell-and there was a guy I met who renamed himself Aragorn."

Woehr explained that the mountainous area where he was living was probably akin to the Misty Mountains of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. He began reading the books out loud to girlfriends, holding nightly sessions and developing voices for all the different characters.

"I was on level three of geekdom," he laughed. "Tolkien created so much history. There are 13 dwarves in The Hobbit, and I had a different voice for each one. I discovered that it changed my viola playing. It could no longer just be a phrase played normally; it had to have a character to it. And that stayed with me. I realize that’s the missing element in musical training-taking acting."

Woehr said he never thought Tolkien’s work was filmable-he ridiculed the animated version by Ralph Bakshi as being primarily "the loud parts of battle scenes." But Peter Jackson’s triumphant celluloid masterpiece thoroughly impressed him, and so did the music.

"I was just listening to a passage from ‘Minas Tirith.’ I’m a composer, and I think in terms of emotional mapping now. It’s how you lay a story out just in music, with the flow of emotion from A to B to C. There’s this simultaneity of emotions that starts at the beginning, and classical music is the only way to get it. At the same instant in time, it sounds ancient, huge, you hear a threatening evil, there’s a personal anxiety, kind of a natural hopelessness, and there’s hope and courage and strength. Virtually simultaneous…you hear one note come in, the high string note over the opening, and it’s a half-step off. And that does so much. If it were just a half-step down, it would be kind of a normal chord. But it’s not, and that’s enough to give it this huge, evil quality."

Such descriptions are wonderfully informative, coming from a musician’s perspective-it helps the listener understand the magnitude of Howard Shore’s aural achievement in the LOTR trilogy. Woehr talked about how difficult the lot of the film composer is, having to write so much music and fit it to a specific time frame.

"It’s the challenge of film composers to work with post-production cuts. So you have to be able to go back to tonic more often.You have to make these quick cadences and be able to change to another mood. You’re under a crunch. So what you’ve done originally might not be what we hear. I give film composers a lot of slack in that regard. They don’t have the luxury of doing what Brahms does at the end of Brahm’s First, where he has eight and a half minutes before he has a tonic chord. And that’s so powerful when you finally reach that, like a giant orgasm. Film composers rarely get that chance."

Woehr definitely felt that the LOTR score was artfully crafted, and worthy of becoming a performance piece.

"In and of itself, it’s quite an achievement," he said. "They successfully switched back and forth (in the score) between the loud and the quiet. As a composer, the big temptation is to always return to tonic, the home key that you’re in. Long-term harmonic motion, the key scheme, is the most powerful carrier of emotion. Every time you return to tonic, you’ve taken away the forward motion. You’ve returned back to safety. When you hear something that sounds banal, that’s almost always what it is, returning to tonic too many times. That’s what most pop music does… if a piece is gonna last a century, it has to have a good groove, but it also has to have an emotional map to it. You can’t just depict a single mood."

Film music has to be evocative, and it has to help carry the viewer through a wide range of events on screen, the "emotional map" Woehr was referring to. He especially appreciates the Rings music for depicting a story that takes place outside.

"So much of music for movies is about mean people in cities. That’s what I call the genre, "mean people in cities" music. This is not. There are certainly mean beings in it, but it’s mostly about the outside, about nature – the experience of traveling through it. I’ve done solo backpacking across British Columbia, and across the Alaskan arctic, so when I see these scenes in my mind of them traipsing through the mountains, it just hits home."

And what is the veteran musician most looking forward to when the curtain goes up and the first notes of Howard Shore’s amazing music commence?

"Having the hall packed with people who never hear a full, great, professional orchestra and chorus, playing their guts out," he said."The huge dynamic range that you can get in live music, from a whisper to something that sounds like it’ll blow the walls out. To have this new audience there for that." | Kevin Renick

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