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'Two Towers'

Ludwig Wicki conducting a Fellowship of the Ring at Wolf Trap (photo by Priska Ketterer Luzern / Wolf Trap)
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Following up on a successful screening of the first volume of Peter Jackson's sprawling Lord of the Rings trilogy in May 2008, the Filene Center at Wolf Trap hosted two screenings of The Two Towers this past weekend. In spite of intermittent rain on Saturday night, which provided atmospherically appropriate lightning and rumbles of thunder, the lawn was filled with umbrella-toting Tolkien fans -- we saw at least one Gandalf impersonator, complete with tall, pointy hat -- as were the more expensive seats in the theater, with some empty patches at the back. Why were people willing to pay $25 to $55 to see a movie that came out in the theaters some years ago? Because a pick-up orchestra of area players, the City Choir of Washington, and two vocal soloists performed Howard Shore's alternately ethereal and booming score live during the screening. The main outdoor screen, attached to the wall of theater, was pretty small, but the one inside the theater, hung in line with the proscenium arch, was cinematic in size, and the sound of the massive performance forces swept over us in the front of the orchestra section with tidal might.

Conductor Ludwig Wicki, who has led these screening-performances all over the world, led with a veteran's hand, lining up most of the pieces of the score, divided up into discrete numbers, with the visual cues, which he followed on an individual laptop screen on the podium. In a few places, of course, the music did not quite synch up with the film, as when Gandalf and the Balrog fall through the mineshaft of Moria near the beginning -- as we see the flaming demon fall into a large cavern with an underground lake, there is a shift in the score, which came a few seconds late, for example. Most of the success or failure of this kind of performance is due to how well the ensemble can imitate the performance on the soundtrack, and that it mostly did, from the dynamic swells and chanted Tolkien languages of the choir to the amplified solo violin (Norwegian fiddle) of the Rohan music. The same was true of the vocal solos, including the white-toned soprano solo of the Arwen music (although Kaitlyn Lusk's rendition of Gollum's Song, the pop song that is heard with the credits, with lyrics by Fran Walsh, was embarrassingly over the top, complete with arm movements).

Although Master Ionarts would not normally be allowed to watch such a violent movie at his age, he went with me on Saturday night to support his friend and musical colleague, treble Nolan Peters, who was spot-on in the elfin, otherworldly treble solos toward the end of the film. Fortunately for the younger audience members, the shorter, theatrical version of the film was screened, which with a welcome intermission, still lasted over three hours. Howard Shore may not be a great original composer -- witness the abject failure of his opera The Fly -- but he is a brilliant chameleonic imitator of evocative styles. Minor-to-minor mediant chords and minor (mostly) pentatonic scales evoke the rough, folksy feel of the Rohirrim, with a skillful use of exotic instrumental color, and an imitation of Holst's Mars music, in 5/4 even more slavish than John Williams's adaptation of that famous music for the Star Wars Imperial March, serves nicely for the marching orcs. All in all, an effective way to combine two of my nerdy tendencies, orchestral music and Lord of the Rings.

If you missed these performances at Wolf Trap, you could take a trip to the screening of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring , also with live music but at a considerably higher ticket price, at Radio City Music Hall in New York (October 9 and 10).

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