"And then we pushed a piano off a loading dock" - An oral history of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Cantaré Children’s Choir is currently gearing up to participate in a performance of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Live with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. It is an epic musical journey filled with musical and production challenges and satisfaction of equal amounts. As I send my well-wishes on to our current choristers, I can’t help but be flooded back with memories of my incredible journey that was the first time we performed the Lord of the Rings live when we did The Fellowship of the Ring in the same fashion back in 2013. It was an epic production and easily one of my favourite memories of my 14 years singing in Cantaré Children’s Choir. Typical of Catherine’s instruction, many of the memories of Fellowship have been the foundation of the learning process for our current choristers’ work on Two Towers whether by necessary lessons learned or by simple nostalgia. As such, it seems important to bring you back into 2013 to experience some of the sights and sounds of our time producing Fellowship all those years ago.
“One does not simply walk on stage” - Preparing a Masterpiece
The first step of preparing any orchestral work with Cantaré is getting to understand the roots of the piece. If we are performing Mahler 8, we must first understand who Mahler was and how Mahler 1-7 got us to this work. It is an essential piece of preparation to ensure the choristers are all on the same page about where our performance efforts should go when the time comes. For LOTR, this is actually a much easier process because we were all raised with these movies.
Our time to perform Fellowship came at an awkward time for the choir generationally as there was a significant split in the level of knowledge of the films. When we first performed The Lord of The Rings Symphony in 2008, the choir was made up of people born between 1990-1996 which meant we were all just at the right age to be completely enthralled by the films upon release. Most of my friends were the sorts who would watch them a minimum of 4-5 times a year and knew the score up and down before the music ever arrived. However, fast forward to 2013 and this is no longer the case: The ensemble was now made up of kids roughly born 1995-2000 and there was a pretty major split from the older choristers who were die hards and the younger choristers who had never seen them at all. I remember very clearly in the first rehearsal one younger chorister asked “ok, so why is the ring important?” (!!!!!). This led to a plethora of watch parties and true geek-out moments to try to get the young bloods up to speed on what they’d been missing this whole time.
I’ve always thought this is one of the most fascinating parts of musically preparing a children’s choir: The age turnover being so incredibly high means you have a different choir every time and the learning process will be totally different each time. When conferring with the adult chorus, they always remark its someone’s fifth time performing a piece through the decades and that it’s an easy learn for them because they did it years ago. For the children, a gap of two or three years could mean you have an entirely different ensemble. Sometimes you can ride the cultural wave to make the learning process easier, other times, you have to manufacture that wave yourself. The expectation of quality will always be the same, but the journey along the way always promises to be new and exciting.
As for this journey, it quickly became apparent to the entire choir that we had our work cut out for us. The Fellowship score is an EPIC musical journey and establishes the tone for the entire trilogy. The choir plays a pivotal role in establishing many of the musical themes – particularly in music focused around the Ring and Elvish themes. It is loaded with gems – but all ones you really have to work for as a singer. The Lord of the Rings film score is unique because I would argue it poses an equal challenge as some of the biggest symphonic works in the classical canon. It is immensely complicated and demonstrates complex musical ideas in a few short hours. Getting your head wrapped around the music takes time and dedication.
LOTR fans remember this as the epic “Khazad-Dum chase”. I will now remember it as 230 bars of uninterrupted chant that had to be functionally memorized to keep it in time with the conductor. Never see a sausage get made, I guess…
One of the things I am the most proud of from being in Cantaré is that the choir is consistently praised for being professional, well-prepared, and meaningful contributors to the rehearsal process when in projects with orchestras and other artists. This project was no different as Cantaré received high praise from Maestro Ludwig Wicki for being one of the finest children’s choirs to command the part. I’m always so proud when my colleagues are shown such respect.
“Pack the Jack” - Getting everyone on stage
LOTR is such a ridiculous production that even the simple act of getting everyone on stage at the Jack Singer Concert Hall feels like a victory. The score calls for a massive orchestra and an accompanying adult and children’s chorus of equal size. This is “get cozy with your neighbour” time and it could feel quite claustrophobic at times. The overall busyness of the stage can often be a distraction from the rest of the rehearsal process because you are just so enthralled by the size of the production.
This was an extra important moment for me because 16-year-old Graeme was having the chance to sing as a member of the adult chorus rather than being in the children’s section. Cantaré is different from many young choruses because it retains young men through their voice change and mentors the process of becoming a fully-fledged tenor or bass. Collaborations like this with the CPO are huge growth opportunities for our young men to test their skills out in an adult chorus setting. In this upcoming production, we have four boys singing in the adult chorus and I couldn’t be more excited for them.
The rehearsal process was something of a roller coaster to be a part of. For one thing, we lost a soloist which is always pretty scary: The score calls for a child soprano soloist which we provided, but on the day of the first full run-through, our soloist went down with a nasty case of strep throat – A killer in our field. Luckily, we always prepare multiple people for any role we need soloists, so we had backup options ready. It’s always sad to see someone unable to perform due to illness, as I was the soloist when we performed the symphony a few years earlier, I felt particularly heartbroken for her situation. It seems like every time we perform with the CPO we get to have at least one “that’s showbiz!” moment.
Due to its incredible artistic and logistical demands, the Lord of the Rings has its own set of special conductors who have to be certified by the production to direct the work. For this production we had the pleasure of working with Swiss Conductor Ludwig Wicki who was one of the most remarkable conductors I’ve worked under. He had to be literally perfect to make sure the entire orchestra and choir was timed up just right with the film playing above and his precision was downright scary at times. He could conduct two bars at Quarter = 104 and the following two at Quarter = 106 and you could see a distinct change in pattern that kept the music in time. For the non-music nerds, that would be like driving someone around in your car and they accurately tell your car has increased by 1km/h without a speedometer. It was absurd.
Wicki was so dedicated to making everything authentic to the film and the unique soundscape the chorus has to produce is a big part of that process. It was incredible to hear how the sound morphed over days of rehearsal into the signature LOTR sound the audience is expecting.
“Bringing it all together” - Showtime!
We finally arrived at the big weekend! Time to bring the show to life… By the time performance comes, the hard work is finished. If you’ve done the preparation right the production has every reason to go well. However, that doesn’t mean the project requires any less focus or dedication. For the vocal performers in particular, the name of the game is pacing. LOTR runs a little short of three hours and when you have to do three shows in a weekend, there is almost no way to guarantee you will be in good vocal health for the whole thing, it’s just too much singing. You have to be disciplined enough to devote the remainder of the time resting, staying hydrated, and keeping your mind focused on executing the performance plan. I think this is something that audiences frequently overlook when they consider the sacrifices made to be a part of a show like this, the performers lose most of their time off to keeping their instrument in good health and even the slightest slip of focus over the course of the entire week can land you in pretty big trouble. For the children, this meant days home from school, endless naps and rest, and even watching the films a few times through to stay fresh. Its all worth it in the end though, I couldn’t tell you what units I missed those few days at school, I will forever remember the time I brought this masterpiece to the stage.
As would be expected with a production like this, the hall was packed to the rafters with what I can only describe as a very non-standard orchestra audience. It feels like the floodgates to Geekdom are opened and LOTR fans of all kinds come flooding into the hall to see their favourite films performed. This brings all kinds of fun with it: for one, it’s a very active audience. The slightest excitement in the film is met with cheers, hoots, and hollers from the crowd as their favourite characters grace the screen and major cult moments are observed like the classic “one does not simply walk into Mordor (GROOOOAN)”. It is also one of the most receptive audiences I’ve ever performed for: All three performances were met with thunderous standing ovations at the half and the audience is so supportive of your efforts as a musician. Speaking as a fellow nerd, I think there is still an element of amazement that a production like this is even happening and we feel legitimized by the fact that the stories we love have almost been accepted into the societal canon. On top of that, it really is a high-level production and seeing something you love come to life in an entirely different way is such a wonderful experience. The success of LOTR in concert has led to similar adaptations of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, even films like Gladiator and Inception. The fusing of classical music and popular film culture seems to be here to stay, and I could not be happier to see such a prosperous union.
“The Aftermath” - The Piano Story
Probably my most lasting memory of our production of Fellowship actually occurred once the show was over. One of the more important musical motifs in Fellowship is what we call “The chunky 5/4 Isengard theme” which is used any time the villainous Uruk-Hai make an appearance in the film. As you listen to it, you’ll notice that steady steel-sounding beat in the background which is produced by smashing a steel chain against the soundboard of an old piano. The orchestra went out to a junkyard and managed to find a mostly destroyed instrument to do the job - no reason to waste a good instrument on such mayhem. To state the obvious, hitting a piano with a chain isn’t good for it, and by the end of the week of production this poor old beater piano was all but trashed. Thus, a scheme was formed by the percussion section: at the conclusion of the production, the piano would be given a death worthy of its glorious noisy service to the orchestra.
On the eve of the final performance, members of the orchestra as well as many of the children gathered outside the loading dock for the concert hall where our poor victim was awaiting its glorious end. To add insult to injury, Principle Percussionist Tim Rawlings thought it important to give the thing a little whack with the “Mahler Hammer” before sending it on its way.
After the destruction, the children went to examine the wreckage and each took small parts of the piano as a small keepsake of the experience. Each chorister went home with at least one key to mark the incredible journey that was Fellowship. In many ways, I think the journey of this instrument chronicles the perfect metaphor for what producing this titan of a show was like: At the end of so much work you aren’t the same person, and the music and film you love takes on an entirely new image of your mind. Now, as equally as I love the films, I love the memories that come flooding back whenever I watch them.
To make things even better, THE PIANO LIVES ON! The soundboard from the wreckage was salvaged and is being used in this weekend’s production of the Two Towers which means they didn’t need to find a second piano to beat up. The spirit of our Fellowship will be on stage supporting this new production as it continues the journey of the ring.
About the Author
Graeme Climie is a guest alumni contributor to the Cantaré Blog. He sang in Cantaré Children’s Choir from 2002-2016.
Location: Southern Jubilee Auditorium
Friday, May 17 / 7:30 PM
Saturday, May 18 / 7:30 PM
Sunday, May 19 / 2:00 PM