There is a strange guttural glugging filling the deserted lobby of the British School al Khubairat. Upstairs, inside the starkly-lit auditorium, a less than ordinary choir practice is taking place. A small group of middle-aged men are making a brave attempt at their Middle Earth vowels. "You are not nice gentlemen," says the German conductor Tobias Leppert. "You are evil Orcs!" It's the final week of rehearsals for The Lord of the Rings Symphony.
As the performance at the Emirates Palace inches closer, Leppert helps put the final touches to the choir's performance of Howard Shore's sprawling work. The score was originally written for the movie trilogy, but Shore has adapted it into a six-movement symphony for the stage that has been performed all over the world. The music, written to evoke the thrilling vistas and epic drama in the books and films as well as the various civilisations of the author JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth, poses several challenges. The styles jostle amid nine-part harmonies and complex vocal rhythms that are troublesome even for a professional choir. For tomorrow's performance, amateur choirs from Abu Dhabi will be joined by the Orpheus Choir from Sofia, Bulgaria, and the German Radio Philharmonic.
This was one of the principal reasons Shore's ambitious work is featured in the Abu Dhabi Classics programme, says Till Janczukowicz, the executive director of the series. "It gives us an opportunity to actively involve society. It is very important to us to include the public, and everybody that Abu Dhabi Classics was made for." There are similar plans for next season as well, Janczukowicz says. "We have had very good experiences so far and everybody has been very enthusiastic."
The music is only half the battle: the lyrics are in Adűnaic, Black Speech, Khuzdűl, Quenya, Rohhiric and Sindarin - languages Tolkien created for the Hobbits, elves, Orcs, dwarfs and Men of Rohan who populated Middle Earth. "It has certainly been challenging for the children," says Marianne Black, the director of the Al Khubairat Primary choir and the Abu Dhabi Chamber Choir. In fact, Shore included a simpler score for children in order to produce the ethereal sound for the symphony's recurring ring theme and for Gollum's Song.
Dorsa Bayat, 12, one of the soloists and a pupil at Raha International School, says, "We just say the words; we don't know what it means." Luckily, phonetically transcribed lyrics make the trickier sounds less of a mouthful, and all of the performers have received translations. Bayat also calls the music a good barometer. "Sometimes it's mysterious and sometimes it's really slow and dramatic." George Kidd, 11, one of the soloists from the Al Khubairat Primary Choir, says, "The words aren't too difficult. I know the last part is about the ring being destroyed."
The children open the symphony with a soft, multi-tonal "aaaaah". Instantly, we are transported to the misty forests of Lothlórien. But then, one by one, the children run out of puff and the sound tails off. "Don't forget to stagger your breathing," says Black. "You can pause if you need to take a breath. There are so many singers, no one will notice." Once the children have rehearsed (joint rehearsals were saved for later in the week), it is time for the adult choirs - and an abrupt change in the music. Wistful harmonies are replaced with clashing notes and an increasingly hammering rhythm. Clearly, all is not well in Middle Earth.
"Most people have seen the film," says Margaret Millington-Lee, a member of the Al Khubairat singers. "That helps put it in context. Some parts of the music are very familiar. Also, Marcus [Huber, who has conducted the symphony 55 times and will conduct Friday's performance], came to rehearsals in January and he relayed the story and the emotion behind the words as we were singing it. I thought that was really helpful."
A harsh, guttural grunting starts from a small group in the back row: "ur-us buz-ra, ur-us ni nuz-ra, lu lu lu lu" chant the men. Despite having no idea what they're saying, their meaning is unmistakable: the orcs mean business. "I don't understand the words," admits Leppert, the conductor. "The important thing is the music. It is so full of emotion and expression that it explains itself." "The Elvish theme will appeal to purists," says Jonathon Lyall, the director of performances and head of instrumental studies at the British School al Khubairat, as well as director of the al Khubairat singers. "There are those who will go away and study it. But most of us come here to sing. There are enough difficulties with the notes."
Shore's adaptation features a series of tonal poems similar to the liberal poems and songs scattered through the books. "It comes from European classical music," says Janczukowicz. "Shore has used Wagner's leitmotif technique, so it is like a classical piece, but also contemporary." Although The Lord of the Rings Symphony is an ambitious choice for a relatively inexperienced singing group, the participants appear to be taking it in their stride. "It's a big project to play with a big orchestra and a visiting choir," says Lyall. "But we've been waiting a long time now so we're more than ready."
Black thinks it is a question of expectations. "I find in general that adults and children rise to the level of expectation set for them. And if you have really high expectations of what they can achieve, most of them get there." However, they are not without their last-minute nerves. "I'm feeling quite nervous about Friday," Kidd says. "I'm sacred I might get the words wrong or that I might sound strange or something. But I'm also excited. I enjoy people saying 'that was good.'"
The Orpheus Choir, the German Radio Philharmonic and the conductor Marcus Huber have joined rehearsals this week. "It's been a huge undertaking," says Black. "But I think it's essential here [to involve the community] and I hope they do more of this in future. If you get children involved at a young age, they're more likely to become not only the performers, but the audience of the future." kboucher @thenational.ae