Review: A magical experience with questionable narration

Review: A magical experience with questionable narration

The Aiken Symphony Orchestra set out two months ago to create a show that would attract the youth in Aiken, and thus Hogwarts in Aiken was born. Their first annual “Harry Potter” themed show premiered Saturday afternoon at the Etherredge Center.

Entering the Etherredge lobby was like walking into Hogwarts school and my inner 8-year-old, who secretly read under the blankets after sneaking home “The Sorcerer’s Stone” from the school library, was squealing with joy. There were Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws and even a few sly Slytherins wandering around the room. A smoking cauldron served as a prop for photos and even the two dementors in the room couldn’t stop the excitement.

The main stage seats were full of excited children, teens and reminiscing adults, ready for the show to begin. Some of the orchestra members were even dressed for the occasion, with the pianist’s page-turner dressed in a gray cloak and matching witch hat. The maestro, or headmaster, entered and the crowd roared with approval at his head-to-toe Dumbledore costume, including a long wig and beard combo.

Dr. Donald Portnoy, or Professor Dumbledore if you prefer, is an internationally acclaimed conductor who helped build the orchestra program at the University of South Carolina (USC) starting in 1986. He has guest conducted in over a dozen countries and helped found the Aiken Symphony Orchestra in 2016.

Portnoy greeted the audience in character, mentioning that he had just come off a flight from his “school.” He asked for a show of hands for any audience members who had never seen the Aiken Symphony Orchestra play. Surprisingly, at least a quarter of the audience raised their hands.

He then introduced the orchestra, showing the younger members of the audience how they sounded by section. This part of the show might seem odd (or even frustrating) to someone who regularly attends concerts for orchestras, choirs and other classical musicians. However, since many of the audience members were under 10-years-old, I found it helpful and necessary.

Along with the orchestra and conductor, the ensemble included a narrator of sorts. Jack Anderson was keen to proclaim the context of each piece and movement and the voice he put on was very effective. However, each time he stood up to explain, he was boldly erroneous in his details.

At first his errors were minor and quite forgivable, such as suggesting that Hogwarts students are required to have a pet. While certain pets are allowed at the school, they are not obligatory or even strongly encouraged. For example, Hermione does not even purchase her cat, Crookshanks, until the third volume of the series.

He later mentioned house-elves, who he said either worked at the school or the bank and could be freed from service by receiving a sock from their master. House-elves do not work at the Gringotts bank (those are goblins, buddy!) and are historically in service to wealthy families. In order to be freed, they can receive any piece of clothing from their master. Dobby just so happened to receive a sock.

As stated, these mistakes were minor and did not detract too much from the show. However, when he later said that Gilderoy Lockhart was being controlled by Lord Voldemort (wrong character and movie!) and was killed by Harry in the Chamber of Secrets I, among other audience members, lost all faith in the narrator. I spoke to several viewers later, who all said that their frustration in this aspect of the show was a drawback. 

My suggestion to anyone narrating a Harry Potter-themed event, which is sure to be full of hard-core fans like myself (I’ve reread the series more times than I can count on both hands), is to either refresh yourself on the storyline or have someone who is more knowledgeable write your notes.

The only other negative in the show was the slideshow of random Harry Potter-related graphics and pictures. It seemed as though someone searched “Harry Potter” on google images, saved every single photo in the first four pages and then put them on the screen in random order. The intention is clear, but even a single, beautiful photo of Hogwarts school that covered the whole screen would have been more effective.

Since this show was put together in two months, these mistakes seem more justifiable. It was made clear that this is the first of a now-annual show, which means that it is sure to get better and more ambitious next year and beyond.  

What is surprising, given the timeline, is how incredible the actual music in the show was. I was transported back to my childhood as soon as Hedwig’s theme began. It was magically authentic and had clearly been put together by a meticulous, talented group of performers. When playing pieces that are so familiar to an audience, the performer has to be strictly accurate because any mess up or deviation could upset the committed fans of the original production. 

I was especially impressed with the strings section. Strings are so important to the series’ entire score and without a talented group of performers, there is no way that this kind of production could be pulled off.

Aiken Symphony Orchestra is clearly an impressive, accomplished group of professional instrumentalists who are dedicated to providing a compelling performance no matter the audience.

I am sure that next year’s performance will be just as musically invigorating and will include a more informed narrator.

Weekly Briefing: An update from the hallow-queen

Weekly Briefing: An update from the hallow-queen

'Hogwarts in Aiken' premieres at Etherredge Center

'Hogwarts in Aiken' premieres at Etherredge Center