Symphony of the Ring

Mar 3, 2017

Program cover for the South Bend Youth Symphony Orchestra's performance of Lord of the Rings

Now. Where to begin? Ah yes.

Concerning . . . the South Bend Youth Symphony. Conductor Robert Boardman, being interviewed by the South Bend Tribune, my newspaper, said he was looking for a hammered dulcimer player for his upcoming project, the music from Lord of the Rings Fellowship (the 1st movie). The reporter said "I know just the guy." Boardman emailed me with the proposition. I accepted the challenge in an instant. That day he photographed the portions of the score I was to play and sent them to me. I Photoshopped them to printable condition, downloaded a recording of the score, and began practicing that night. Monday after rehearsal the maestro asked me also to re-enforce the percussion section. They had two bodhrán players, but needed more volume. So, by Wednesday I was doing a 50 bar segment in the beginning of the suite--music from the scenes in the movie set in Hobbiton—and playing bodhrán through parts of the rest of the score--mostly from scenes of battle. One was called "The Bridge at Kazad Doom"--that's where Gandalf fights the balrog.

By Sunday week I was almost ready to go--reading the drum score over the shoulder of the other two and striving to be in sync. We were a 90-person orchestra--a formidable youth symphony plus about 12 older folk, and all the choirs from Penn high school, over 100 singers, and a virtuoso conductor. These young people, I add, were experienced in Dvorak, Sibelius, the music of Star Wars. The first half of this concert program was a demanding percussion concerto featuring a dialog between solo percussionist Ben Runkel of Goshen College and the youth symphony percussionists. In addition, this was the big fund-raiser --sold out 1,000 seats at Notre Dame’s DeBartolo.

We were ready for action! The music, like the film, was thrilling, intoxicating, teeming with spooky passages and crescendos --powerful crescendos. Maestro Boardman was capable of conducting these 190 musicians and singers into a highly-disciplined frenzy, and what little attention I could spare showed me ferocious concentration, sweat pouring off the conductor, the music pounding as if driving hordes of orcs and warg riders before it, orchestra building to fortissimo— low register, then strings, then the higher winds, the choir belting it out for all it's worth, the big bass drum, orchestral gong, tube gongs, various floor toms, xylophone, and three bodhráns, all driven by the merciless thunder of the kettle drums, the player turning and twisting, her hair flying, all eyes riveted on the conductor. I thought, “This orchestra is going to explode!”

When we played the last note of the last crescendo the audience was in stunned silence. Boardman smiled at us as if to say “Yeah, we done it!” turned around and gestured, then the patrons broke into tumultuous applause. One of my friends in the audience said people were shouting and crying. Then the musicians packed up quietly--more than I've seen in the past, and I went home, themes and passages still echoing in my head. I remained in dazed concentration for another whole day.

What I experienced, besides the usual elation of great music, was the focus, the intensity: by the conductor with much prior experience with the score (but this was the first time the score had ever been performed by a youth symphony), by a bunch of competent, practiced musicians, and it all came together as an amazing experience, among the best adventures of my life, and I’ve played in the Martin-Bogan-Armstrong band, with Muddy Waters at Nesbitt's on "the Lake," won a national and three All-Ireland championships. With many big non-musical events besides, I’ve led a busy life.

So I wanted to put a program of it among the important treasures in my university archive "box." I hope you don’t mind. I didn't mean this to go as long, but . . . you asked.