Game of Thrones: Live Concert Experience + Ramin Djawadi @ Bell Centre – October 12th 2018

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Game Of Thrones Montreal

For the last three years, people have said that we are living in an age of “peak TV”, surrounded by more television platforms and higher quality programs than ever before. But with all this content, and with entire seasons dropping onto streaming libraries like Netflix every day, it’s sometimes easy to lose focus on the craft behind each aspect of making these shows. On Friday night, the “Game of Thrones: Live Concert Experience” narrowed that gap, bringing the TGIF tradition into the Bell Centre and celebrating the work that composer Ramin Djawadi has put into creating the musical side one of the most expansive (and expensive) shows on TV.

Fans of HBO’s long-running fantasy series (for the uninitiated, imagine the political intrigue and backstabbing of House of Cards – but with literal backstabbing and dragons) entered the arena in style, seeking shelter from the chilly weather outside and getting their first glimpse of the very on-brand stage design. Dressed in jackets or the occasional fur cloak, fans walked down the steps to sparse ambient instrumentals of Radiohead tunes and saw the cinema-sized video screen, complete with twinkling snowflakes and the blinking eyes of a White Walker (the show’s zombie-analogue army of the undead). They also marvelled at the replica of the Iron Throne (the most important of all the show’s titular thrones, forged from the melted swords of the king’s conquests), the winding stage extension that brought two platforms into the floor seating area, and the occasional hooded stage-hand dressed in black druid’s garb.

Dimming lights and ringing bells brought the procession to order and set the tone. This was followed by an in-character introduction recorded by Queen Cersei herself, warning “lords, ladies… and peasants” to turn off their phones or suffer the consequences (getting “boiled alive in the blood of your children”, if you’re wondering). The video screen then awoke with footage of approaching White Walkers, and the orchestra entered – all wearing show-appropriate costume of peasant clothes, armour, barbarian rags, and royal dresses.

Conducted by Djawadi himself, the touring players (supported by a Montreal orchestra and choir) launched into the pulse-pounding string-driven theme that plays over the opening title – a sequence that pulls double-duty as a recap of the show’s geographical locations and a weekly caveat that viewers are about to see some real nasty stuff. It’s been a year since the show’s penultimate season wrapped up, so the thrills and chills were a welcome reminder of how much I missed the thundering drums and cello.

Djawadi then welcomed the sizeable crowd, which occupied most of the Bell Centre’s floor seats and red sections. He noted that this was the concert’s second time in Montreal, but assured the audience that the production has been updated to feature the new stage design and music from Season 7. He also introduced the event’s mission to serve as a hold-over and a warm-up before the upcoming final season in early 2019. Finally, he invited the crowd to cheer, boo, and “let him hear it” when their favourite characters and villains show up onscreen – and then led the orchestra through a rundown of all the show’s major players, their family allegiances, and their house sigils/mottos.

I was not sure what to expect from a “Concert Experience”, but the general flow of the show worked like this: footage from the TV series played on the main screen, featuring themed compilations or clip-shows of different characters, locations, and story arcs. Ranging from recaps of Ned Stark’s downfall, Daenerys Targaryen’s ascent, and Jon Snow’s courtship with the wildling Ygritte beyond the massive wall in the North, and countless battles, the orchestra sound-tracked each package with the appropriate musical themes, ebbing and flowing with the emotions onscreen. Because there was so much ground to cover, few full scenes were played – but sure enough, a Lannister highlight reel slowly segued into the dirge-like “Rains of Castamere”… and a replay of the vicious “Red Wedding” traumatized a whole arena of viewers all over again.

However, this was no simple live scoring session. Instead, the players complimented the footage, participating in several elaborate set-pieces that brought the music to life. During the early theme for House Stark, the lead violinist wandered down the stage extension to the auxiliary platform, where she was slowly hoisted up to the rafters by a cable. As she continued playing, her exaggerated flowing dress was stretched and lifted to resemble the protagonist family’s signature tree. This intended symbolism was further confirmed by the rose petals that fluttered down from the ceiling to shower the floor seats during the lilting solo. The lead vocalist also had her turn to rise up to the heavens during the Unsullied theme, followed by a choir procession that surrounded her on an elevated platform. Later highlights made good use of fog, snowflakes, LED strobes, and flame jets to conjure the atmosphere, effects, and battle scenes of the show’s otherworldly setting.

But even with these stagecraft tricks, the music and instrumentation still take center stage in recreating the emotional journeys in Game of Thrones. Djawadi introduced Arya Stark’s theme “Needle”, a wide-ranging piece that illustrates the character’s arc from whimsical and happy-go-lucky to determined and vengeful, by explaining how much fun he has with experimenting and writing for unusual or ethnically-specific instruments. Djawadi would take his position at a hammer dulcimer for “Needle”, but his scores also make liberal use of Armenian duduk, djembe, didgeridoo, and an alpine horn crafted for the barbarian “wildlings” of the series.

Coming back from intermission, Djawadi made good on his promise for music from Season 7 during the second half of the show. Of course, fans weren’t safe from having to re-live the heartbreak of Season 6’s “Hold the Door” – but they were also treated to some of that year’s (relative) moments of triumph, like Cersei’s victory over the High Sparrow and a complete and unedited rendition of climactic “Battle of the Bastards”. Because it’s only been a year since those episodes aired, I won’t spoil any of the Season 7 developments that were highlighted. But it is remarkable to see Djawadi’s zen face, eyes closed and smiling, while he conducts the highs and lows and death and destruction that surrounds him.

The Game of Thrones concert experience is an evening of emotional and exciting orchestral compositions, augmented only by creative stage design and set pieces. But it’s also a celebration of a TV journey that viewers have all taken together. While I wish that more audience members had taken Djawadi up on his invitation to hoot and holler at the moments that were important to them, it seemed like most fans were just content to appreciate and bask in the excellent musical production. But even the showgoers who didn’t join in on the occasional pops for fan favourites or chants of “shame!” were compelled, during the encore, to participate in an arena-wide sing-along reprise of the title theme.

For a show with as much gloom as Game of Thrones, Djawadi and the orchestra gave the entire audience a chance to share a moment in the sun with the heroes and villains that they love… including a characteristically lengthy “in memoriam” package that closed the concert. Good times were had by all as they left the arena, stopping downstairs to take laughing group selfies in front of an Iron Throne and green screen backdrops from the show. Aye, warm memories abound! But don’t forget: winter is coming.

Review – Dan Corber
Photo – Ralph Larmann

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