Tuned to Tolkien

By Akshita Nanda

Twelve years after it was first released, blockbuster movie The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001) will be screened here again in June - this time with a live soundtrack.

About 250 Singaporean musicians and singers will perform composer Howard Shore's instrumental and choral melodies as the three-hour film plays out above them on a 60-foot screen at the Star Performing Arts Centre. The production will cost at least $1 million to stage and will be the public debut of the newly formed Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, a Singapore independent professional group featuring freelance musicians.

Two Singapore choirs, International Festival Chorus and The Young Voices Of Vocal Associates, will join the musicians on stage.

"We're beginning with a bang," says the orchestra's music director Chan Tze Law. The 49-year-old conductor is also associate director for ensembles and professional development at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.

Many of the orchestra's members have played with the National Arts Council-funded Singapore Festival Orchestra, which performs at local arts festivals. The idea to stage the live soundtrack to the film stemmed from the popularity of a 2011 concert, when the Singapore Festival Orchestra played the musical accompaniment to the 1929 silent film, A Throw Of Dice, at the Singapore Arts Festival.

The Fellowship Of The Ring live concert will require the new orchestra to fly in special sound equipment, a cut of the movie with only spoken dialogue, as well as American performers: conductor Justin Freer and soprano Kaitlyn Lusk, who have taken the production on tour in the United States.

Live soundtrack productions of all three movies in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, including The Two Towers (2002) and The Return Of The King (2003), have been presented since 2011 in the US. The programme from Columbia Artists Managementhas conductor and soloist working with resident orchestras and choirs in each performance.

Watching movies with live orchestras is a hot trend now, according to conductor Freer. Speaking on the telephone from Los Angeles, the 33-year-old tells Life! that next month, he conducts a similar live performance of the Russell Crowe film Gladiator (2000) in Switzerland. "The title of the movie is the star, it attracts people along with the idea of seeing an orchestra, but the vast majority of people I've spoken to before and after the concert, say that actually, surprisingly many people pay very close attention to what's going on in the orchestra."

The Fellowship Of The Ring is one of the tougher productions he has worked with. "It is so massive, so much choral music, so much to master in such a short rehearsal time," he says. The performers have to be in perfect synchrony with the visuals on screen, which they cannot see, and they take all their cues from the conductor's baton. There is no "click track" of audio cues for them to follow on headsets. "It's a big strain. The thing I'm most worried about is the orchestra members' ability to retrain themselves to watch for new tempos."

The tempo changes rapidly from sweeping epic scores to dramatic, pulse-pounding action and he has sometimes had to rely on memory, for example, if the screen flickers. "It's more challenging than opera, more challenging than modern chamber music. Horrible as it sounds, you can never let yourself enjoy the music 100 per cent of the time."

Soloist Lusk is more at ease, but then the 24- year-old has been in love with this music for a decade. In a telephone interview from New York, she says that at the age at 14, she became the featured vocalist for tours of The Lord Of The Rings Symphony, a six-movement work that condenses Shore's nine-hour film score into a third of the time.

In order to keep singing on tour, she gave up a place at the elite Juilliard School in New York and studied music at State College Pennsylvania, which was more flexible about the number of days she could take off to work. "I just feel so calm in the music," she says. "When people think about film music, they don't think about it in the same way as Beethoven or Wagner but it takes that same amount of detail and technical work to bring Howard's music to life."

In the theatres, recorded voices from Annie Lennox to Bjork to Enya bring alive songs such as May It Be. Lusk says she feels no pressure to ape such brand-name singers. "We get to be a face to themusic. I never had to worry about being Enya."

The article above is taken from "Nanda, A 2013, 'Tuned to Tolkien', The Straits Times' Life!, 17 April, p. 7"

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