Hopefully, there comes a magical moment in one’s life when William Shakespeare makes a connection to a person’s heart and brain and he ceases to be that abstract figure in theater history, that subject of dread for adolescent English students, and instead pulls open the curtain revealing universal truths through the beauty of language. History is full of painters, composers, and even other playwrights who have been affected in that way by the Bard and who were inspired to offer their own visions of Shakespearean images. Music, in particular, seems a natural cousin to Shakespearean language and rhythms—at least the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra thinks so. Their concerts last week, "Shakespeare in Love," offered ample evidence in that regard.
Of all the Bard-inspired musical works, Felix Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream really stands alone. Mendelssohn’s affinity for the play aside, much of its dramatic success stems from the fact that it was written for an actual production, rather than as an abstract work. As a result, a performance of the complete incidental music practically demands the inclusion of at least some of the play itself in order to work its magic. To that end, the KSO joined with four actors associated with the Clarence Brown Theatre (Carol Mayo Jenkins, David Kortemeier, Conrad Ricamora, and Charles R. Miller, directed by John Sipes) and the women of the Knoxville Chamber Chorale in a melding of music and brief, humorously edited excerpts from the play. I used the word “humorously” because some of the comic value came not from the Shakespeare itself, but from the actors’ delivery in an obviously edited version and from the addition of a few laugh-inducing non-Shakespearean exclamations provided by Kortemeier’s excellent Oberon in dealing with Mayo Jenkins’ Titania.
Maestro Lucas Richman conducted the work with a broad brush, but kept the cueing tight and crisp. The overture, the product of the 17-year-old Mendelssohn and composed 17 years before the incidental music itself, was well played and served to introduce the audience to the evocative spirit of the piece, if not some of the thematic material itself. The interludes and entr’actes are there to reinforce the Shakespearean magic—setting the mood and creating mental images in ways that only music can.
Of particular note for this reviewer was the Nocturne, designed as an entr’acte between Acts III and IV as the Athenean lovers have fallen asleep. The lengthy horn solo by principal horn Calvin Smith, harmonized by bassoons (Ellen Connors and Cora Nappo) was luminous and gentle—the perfect musical description of a woodland slumber. The Scherzo, which introduces Act II set in the woodland inhabited by fairies and sprites, was a feast for the strings and woodwinds. They leapt and flittered—as evocative of a fairyland as one could hope for.
Opening "Shakespeare in Love" were two other Shakespeare-inspired works: Hamlet and Ophelia, op. 22, by the American Edward MacDowell, followed by the quintessence of both romance and the Romantic era, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture After Shakespeare.
MacDowell’s Hamlet and Ophelia was nothing if not pleasant, but time has not been kind to his adopted form of Romanticism—an American living in Germany trying to embrace late 19th-century German Romanticism. Unfortunate, too, is the fact that one is hard-pressed to find any particular impressionistic correlation, real or imagined, between MacDowell’s music and Shakespeare’s play.
On the other hand, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet has had the reverse effect, practically forcing its lofty pictorial view of love not only into the minds of Shakespearean theatergoers, but onto almost any romantic situation, anywhere, within earshot of its all too familiar love theme. However, this popularity is not undeserved. Unlike MacDowell, Tchaikovsky seemed to understand theater and musical illustration, and brilliantly drew out the emotions and conflicts found in Shakespeare’s play through the use of that soaring theme and a wealth of instrumental colors. Every orchestra section had moments that portrayed emotions rather than characters—notably, though, the KSO’s well-played English horn, flute, violas, and harp. I appreciated Richman’s approach to tempo throughout, mirroring at least the perception of Shakespearean dramatic tempo, from the cautious expectation of the opening passages and moments for the slow, ominous low strings to the final percussive conflict. Shakespearean indeed.