If the names Frodo, Gandalf and Boromir suggest an Eastern European law firm -- or if places like Rivendell, Khazad-dum and Lothlorien sound like overnight stops on an exotic river cruise -- you probably wouldn't be much interested in the extravaganza at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this week.
But if those names do resonate deeply, you no doubt belong to the worldwide fan base for J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, a base that explains why you get more than 12 million entries when you Google that title. By extension, you're also crazy about the acclaimed film trilogy that Peter Jackson based on this classic of literary fantasy -- and the music by Howard Shore that helps give those films their remarkable richness.
More than 11 hours of movie soundtracks have been distilled into an evening-length work, The Lord of the Rings Symphony, that has been drawing audiences from Taipei to Moscow, Seattle to Newark. The piece gets its local premiere tonight and tomorrow by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with help from the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Maryland State Boychoir.
The combined forces -- more than 200 performers -- will be led by John Mauceri, music director of the Pittsburgh Opera and principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles.
"John helped me decide what to leave out in making the symphony and how to shape the six movements," Shore says by phone from a New York office. "I needed a good editor."
The finished product contains six movements that provide a condensed narrative experience, supplemented visually by original sketches and storyboards by artists Alan Lee and John Howe used in the preparation of the films.
Shore, who won Oscars for each of the three Rings soundtracks, conducted the first performance of the symphony a year ago in New Zealand. Since then, it has had at least 50 performances. (A documentary, Creating 'The Lord of the Rings' Symphony, will be included in a new boxed DVD set of the movies being released this month.)
Dori Armor, the BSO's director of community programming, first heard about the possibility of presenting the symphony 18 months ago, before the piece was finished. "Several of us [in the BSO's artistic operations department] thought this sounded like a good idea," she says, "but we couldn't find a time in the orchestra's schedule, so it was tabled. Then last year, we realized we could squeeze it in right before the holidays."
By that point, the premiere had taken place and word of its audience appeal had spread. "We knew it was a home run," Armor says. "It was received almost like a rock concert in other cities. I went to see it in Philadelphia last season, and the reaction was great. The audience had everyone from grandchildren to grandparents; entire families were there. You don't see that very often in the orchestral world. I think we're going to see all types of people here."
Those types include members of an online "meetup group" of Rings devotees in the Baltimore area; according to their Web page, they plan to gather at tomorrow's concert.
Originally, Shore was scheduled to conduct the symphony here; his presence in other cities has added to the draw. Instead, the composer, who recently conducted the symphony in Moscow, is heading to Tokyo for performances of it. "But I don't think his not being here will keep this from being a success," Armor says.
For Shore, the most important element of each presentation isn't who is on the podium. "It was always more about the community," he says of the symphony project. "It was always about working with the local symphony orchestra, the local chorus, the children's choir. In the end, it's really their work."
Creating this sort of homegrown effort, rather than using a single touring ensemble, even fits in with one of the principal messages in The Lord of the Rings -- fellowship. "Everywhere you go, you find there is some connection to Tolkien," Shore says. "He has affected people in a deep way."
Marian Grant, a longtime member of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and an emergency room nurse at Johns Hopkins, can second that notion.
"I was a fan of the books as a young woman," Grant says. "Then I went to the movies and fell even more in love with the whole thing. Now that I'm singing in The Lord of the Rings Symphony, I feel like I have died and gone to heaven."
Grant went with friends to Pittsburgh last season to attend one of three sold-out performances of the symphony conducted by Shore. "I was very excited to see a lot of young people at the concert, which we typically don't get at a Verdi Requiem," she says. When she got back, she had some advice for Tom Hall, Baltimore Choral Arts Society music director. "I told him that, as a Lord of the Rings fan and a choral singer, it would be too perfect if we did this symphony. He said, 'What symphony?'"
Hall found out soon enough, when the BSO engaged his chorus for this week's shows. He then moved deeper than he ever expected into the world of Middle-earth and its inhabitants, not to mention their languages. "I've sung a lot of weird things and played a lot of weird rooms," Hall says with a laugh, "but I've never done a concert in Elvish before."
In his books, Tolkien invented Elvish, the lingua franca of Elves, and Dwarvish, for the dwarves; he also employed some Old English along the way. To help choruses cope with these strange tongues -- and there is choral singing in all of the symphony's six movements -- the words are spelled out phonetically in the score. "We're also given the connotations of the words," Hall says.
As a devotee of all things Rings, Grant has an advantage over her colleagues. "I don't speak any of the languages fluently," she says. "I haven't gone that far overboard. But you can tell Elvish is different from Dwarvish. It is a wonderful experience to try to re-create the languages."
This linguistic twist is but one challenge in the complex creation. The plot line snakes through a maze of twists, as heroes and villains vie for control and understanding of a most powerful ring; the list of characters is about as long as a moderate-sized city's phonebook.
Filmmaker Jackson had his work cut out for him in translating Tolkien to the screen; Shore's job was no less daunting. "Peter and I would work on musical descriptions of, say, the world of Rohan," the composer says. "We would come up with ideas based on what we felt about Shire, the Fellowship or Rivendell."
To provide a musical connection to all of these people, objects and places, Shore took a cue from Richard Wagner's mammoth, 15-hour, four-part opera about another mythical band of gold and the troubles it caused, The Ring Cycle. Wagner created leitmotifs -- distinctive melodic themes -- to identify personal and impersonal elements in that epic.
"What Wagner did was provide a clarity to the storytelling that takes people through the Ring," Shore says. "I wanted to tell the Lord of the Rings story with motifs, too. The story begins in Shire and, 10 or 11 hours later, returns to where you began. Only with the use of motifs can you feel that."
Grant, who has collected all the soundtracks to the Rings movies on CD and eagerly awaits the promised release of every note from the scores on a nine-disc set in the near future, appreciates these musical guideposts. Shore uses more than 50 leitmotifs in all, identifying everything from Hobbits to a mighty sword that must be reforged.
"Every time I hear the music, I'll be thinking, oh, there's Boromir's theme, there's the theme for Gandalf," Grant says. But that's only part of the Rings Symphony's appeal to her. "As an artistic experience, there's real substance there," she says, "with all these wonderful layers of meaning, in both the visual and aural parts of the experience. It really does hang together."
Grant praises the symphony for another reason. "Some of my choral buddies think it's schlock and we shouldn't be doing it," she says, "but we can't do the Verdi Requiem all the time. The success of the films and the soundtracks shows that this is very popular music, and it's music that uses chorus and orchestra. The next time the Choral Arts Society sings, people who come to this might decide to check it out. It's a long shot, but it could happen."
Shore takes a similar view, noting that his symphony has given some listeners their first experience with live orchestral and choral music. "That's the real joy of it for me," the composer says. And what about those who aren't already Middle-earth-worms? "I like to feel that an audience uninitiated in The Lord of the Rings can be interested in this, too."
'Lord of the Rings' Symphony
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 7:30 tonight and tomorrow
Tickets: $25 to $59.50
Call: 410-547-7328 or visit www.ticketmaster.com