BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER: I very strongly suggested to my boyfriend last September that he get me tickets to the Lord of the Rings Symphony, occurring the week before my birthday. He (thank God) appreciates directness in gift-giving and rewarded me with a multi-day nerdgasm:

Fellowship of the Ring…

The Two Towers…..

and Return of the King…..

With the soundtrack being performed LIVE by a symphony orchestra and chorus!

And a signed program by Howard Shore!

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The LOTR trilogy are far and away my favorite movies. They came out while I was a high schooler and my friends and I were more or less obsessed. I had a shrine to the LOTR cast hung up in my locker. Pretty sure I had a crush on 75% of that cast, either the actors or the characters themselves. (Okay, sorry Gimli….not you.) There was fanfic and midnight showings and fervid adolescent emoting.

And of course, for years before and after this I played cello in the orchestra. I still sing in a choir. So the instant I heard about this…..I was approximately this excited:

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After anxiously waiting for months, the extravaganza was finally under way. FOTR on Wednesday, TT on Thursday, and ROTK on Friday. All with the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, flown all the way from Switzerland to perform at the Lincoln Center. This was the first time that the entire trilogy had been performed in the United States.

God help me, how do I even begin to describe how amazing this was?! Here is but a taste of the greatness:

Except this was my vantage point every night. Fourth row!

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I’mma try to break it down:

The movies: they never fail to be mindblowing. But this time, the movies took a backseat to the music. Someone else said it was like the score became another character of the films. Yes! What I lost in ability to be visually immersed in the movie, I gained in being able to watch the musicians work their magic.

The musicians: They were exceedingly talented. That much should be obvious.

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It had to have been exhausting to perform for three hours over several consecutive nights, but dammit if they didn’t look like they were having a good time doing it. I loved watching the double bassists go to town on the marches and battle scenes. And at every turn there were new sonic textures I picked up from the live orchestra that I barely noticed in the film soundtrack. Not many people pop in a LOTR DVD and think to themselves, “Wow, listen to that French horn line!”

The conductor: Ludwig Wicki conducts with astonishing precision and verve. Sitting so far to the side of the stage, I could see few musicians clearly but was able to watch him well. I’ve never been so delighted by a conductor! I learned later that he has a monitor on his stand, which gives him a flashing light signal to indicate score pickups and tempo. Like a drummer’s click track, in a way. Ingenious!

The soloists: Fantastic! In a twist of fate, the soprano Kaitlyn Lusk lived in my hometown growing up. I remember hearing her sing at assemblies as a teen. Granted, she had already recorded an album then and was Kind of a Big Deal, but how fun to see that she’s now internationally famous! The Brooklyn Children’s Chorus also performed, and those boy sopranos KILLED IT.

The audience: An integral part of the experience! I got over my bewilderment at people applauding the soloists relatively quickly (bewildered not because they weren’t amazing, mind you, but because orchestral performances rarely have applause after solos or between movements). As the trilogy progressed, the audience grew more and more responsive, both to the music and the movies. People laughed at the jokes (“PO-TA-TOES!”), and at the unintentionally funny memes (“One does not simply…walk into Mordor”). There was enthusiastic applause for Kaitlyn singing elven music, the concertmaster performing the Rohan theme (GUH MY HEARTSTRINGS), and Legolas’ ridiculous battle tricks. And the house went berserk when Eowyn ripped off her helmet and declared, “I am no man!”

(Let us pause for a moment of recognition for the principal violist. He had a solo during ROTK and nobody applauded. Violists never get any love, man.)

I was hoping to make friends with my seatmates. I figured everyone that close to the stage would have also gotten the deluxe package and been there all three nights. But alas, the crew changed with each performance. A family with two young boys sat next to me during Two Towers (and adorably, they covered their eyes and grumbled during every kissing scene). Lacking small talk and avoiding the astoundingly long bathroom and bar lines, I wandered to the front row during intermission and started checking out the stage setup. That’s when I met these dudes:

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{Thanks to the LOTR 2015 Instagram for this photo!}

“Wow, I just have to say…your shirts are fantastic,” I said, by way of introduction. The guys were instantly sociable and we started gushing about how stupendous the experience had been so far. Emilio and Anthony had roadtripped to NYC from Toronto to see the performances. While I’ve only once watched the entire trilogy in a single day, they do it together every year. (Extended editions.) Then we started talking to a guy who was celebrating his birthday that night….his girlfriend told him they were going to the opera, then surprised him with the Two Towers tickets instead! “Best birthday ever, although I feel ridiculous wearing a suit,” he said. Then after the show, we went out for drinks at the hotel bar with some of the orchestra members, and I got in a long and involved discussion of fandoms with a musician (LOTR! Harry Potter! Game of Thrones!) I had finally found my tribe!

Howard Shore: The man is a genius. Perhaps for a future birthday gift I’ll request Doug Adam’s comprehensive guide to the score, “The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films.” The details in my program of Shore’s thoughtfulness and expertise in composing a half day’s worth of music were fascinating and impressive. For example, he designed each race’s theme with their characteristics in mind (e.g., the mountain-dwelling dwarves are written with lots of percussion– and a strictly male chorus, hearkening to Gimli’s line, “It’s true you don’t see many Dwarf-women. And in fact, they are so alike in voice and appearance, that they are often mistaken for Dwarf-men…”)

I didn’t get a chance to meet him, but my fellow members of the Rohirrim fanclub took this photo of us inhabiting the same physical space on Friday after ROTK:

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The aftermath: I met the orchestra manager later that night at the bar. More drunk on emotion than the beer, I clutched his arm and begged, “You have to come back to the US! YOU HAVE TO!” One can only hope that this was a cash cow for all involved, given seven sold-out shows and secondary-market tickets going for several hundred dollars. But as the manager then reminded me, it isn’t cheap to travel and house 180+ musicians, either….

Who’s to say whether my impassioned pleas or the cold hard cash will have an effect. I sincerely hope so…..even though I’ve decided that I would absolutely travel to see the trilogy live again. I felt bereft for days after it was over. Like when you escape a cold and weary winter for a tropical beach vacation, and return to gray slushpiles and the smell of wet wool and misery. That feeling.

But….why? Why the hell did I love it so much, even more than I expected to? Because the 21st Century Orchestra & Chorus are fine musicians? Because epic quests appeal to us on a deep cultural level? Because Aragorn is still really hot?

Because my life is content, but perhaps in a Shire-like way. I live within a circumscribed emotional plain. Life is good….far from the margins. And in this space, sometimes music or film simply seizes you. Sometimes, an artistic experience comes along and reacquaints you with the vast and wild landscapes of the heart.

My buddy Larry innocuously asked me on Sunday how my week was. After listening to me crow for several minutes about WOW Lord of the Rings and how AMAZING and INCREDIBLE and MINDBLOWING and COLOSSALLY AWESOME it was, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been as passionate as you are about Lord of the Rings….ever. About anything. In my whole life.”

I grinned and shuffled my feet. “Sorry?”

“Nah,” he said. “You’re crazy, but I love that about you.”

Farewell, fellowship. Until next time….may it be fewer than 111 years.

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    I drove to Pittsburgh to see billy boyd sing his song with an orchestra one time but THIS SURELY TOPS THAT EXPERIENCE EXPONENTIALLY

    your experience of re-entry after the shows makes me think of that same feeling I get after seeing several U2 shows in a row (NO ONE IS SURPRISED)

    thanks for sharing! eeeeeeeee



      AND YES U2! That is exactly how I felt. EXACTLY. Except I didn’t describe it that way because LET’S BE REAL most people aren’t music fanatics like us and know the exquisite saudade of seeing band 7 times on a tour and then having to go back to a life of being well-hydrated and not trampled on with your ears ringing. Three more months!!

  2. Okay- best boyfriend ever award! This post made me happy, and I must admit I don’t know enough about LOTR. But it is nice to see someone so enthusiastic about life and appreciative of the good experiences along the way!

    • He’s a keeper :D

      You’ve at least seen the films or read the books, right? If not……well, HA like you have free time between work and grad school to read for fun or watch three-hour movies. But some day!

  3. Pingback: They say it’s your birthday (doo doo de doo) | Chortling Towards Bethlehem

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