Last night I went to the Houston Symphony for a very unique event. They screened LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring with the symphony and chorus providing the music. It was one of the best things I've been to in a long time.
There were so many interesting aspects to it. A large screen the width of the stage was above the symphony and chorus. The screen played the movie with subtitles. That explained one question I had which was how were they going to get around the balance between music and dialogue. When a movie director is editing a film they carefully control how loud dialogue, music and sound effects are in any given scene. Last night it was all about the music and in some parts the movie had a very different feel, not necessarily because you couldn't hear the dialogue but because you couldn't hear the sound effects. It was really fascinating to listen to the movie in a new way.
The conductor had a score and a monitor above his music stand. The monitor showed the movie and had visual cues for entrances and cut offs for the music. There was a vertical purplish line that would run across when the orchestra was getting ready to play. Right after that a green line would cross and a large white circle flashed on the screen with the tempo for one measure. Once the music was playing the white circle would flash at the beginning of each measure and occasionally a blue line would come across for big thematic changes. When the music was getting ready to stop a red line ran across the screen. All of this is of course on the music score, but with a movie the timing has to be so exact. I'm still not sure how he kept his tempo once the music started other than the marking of the beginning of each measure. That may be it. And lots of practice. I know all this because I was in the mezzanine off to the left so I had a perfect view of his monitor and I'm a music teacher so I spent the first part of the movie trying to figure all of this out.
Before intermission I was marveling how everything was so perfectly lined up. If you closed your eyes it was almost like listening to the soundtrack with zero mistakes. I know symphony musicians are paid not to make mistakes but they are still human and the movie score can not be easy. After intermission I was reminded of how human they were when the lead trumpet player hit a few really splatty (and wrong) notes on a very important solo (the fellowship leaves Rivendell and is crossing the mountains...). There were a few other things I noticed like a few tuning issues in the brass once or twice and the french horn and the tuba player hit a splatty note once each. However I don't fault them at all ( except the trumpet player because it was really bad) because boy oh boy there is a lot of music in this movie. Anytime the orchestra stopped playing it was only for a minute or two at the most. Music underlies the whole movie. It can not be easy to play for basically three hours straight with only a 20 minute break for intermission. The stage was also as crowded as I've ever seen it because there are a lot of rich textures and sounds in the movie score. The percussion section was especially fun to watch because some of those guys were running from station to station. There was a guy playing anvil (I'm guessing... I couldn't see from where I was because I'm dumb and left my opera glasses at home but thats what it was supposed to sound like) and a guy playing chains. Yes chains. He had them and was jingling them in rhythm with the anvil during the Isengard scenes.
It was interesting to be that much more aware of where the music cues were in the movie. I could have sworn that one of my favorite scenes, the battle in the mines of Moria, had music, but the initial battle did not. Now that I'm looking back that must be why it is so raw. Just sounds of swords and grunts and death. I was also thinking that Boromir's arrow scene didn't have music but it so obviously does. I think in that case the sound effects of the arrows are the dominant force in my memory and I was probably only vaguely aware of the music. Of course there are times in the movie where music dominates and it was wonderful to listen to those moments live last night; the different choruses sung by the elves at Rivendell and Lothlorien, the music of the Black Riders, the guttural music at the Bridge of Kahazad-Dun and of course Concerning Hobbits. By the way if you don't know all the music look it up. Howard Shore was truly inspired when he wrote the music for LOTR. It is fantastic.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, this is the 10th anniversary of Fellowship of the Ring. I would love to see this done again with Two Towers and Return of the King on their 10th anniversaries. I saw the Lord of the Rings Symphony Concert and while I enjoyed that, this was much more fulfilling for me. I'm not sure if it is because it had the movie playing, or if it was watching the technical aspects as they unfolded or just witnessing the sheer marathon quality of watching the orchestra play an entire movie soundtrack for something as intense as Fellowship. It was truly a remarkable experience.
P.S. Did I mention they also had a children's choir because there is just a certain sound a children's choir gets that grown ups can't and a lovely soprano soloist and a boy soprano soloist. The boy soprano soared. It made this middle school choir director very happy.
P.P.S I was going to put a YouTube video on this post with a music example, but it is impossible to choose just one. I can't pick a favorite.