IN: Reviews

Songs with Quartet in Shakespeare Concert


The Shakespeare Concerts, founded by Worcester-based composer Joseph Summer in 2003, have been presented in Jordan Hall since 2007. They feature music written by composers of all nationalities that sets or is inspired by the texts of William Shakespeare. These compositions have taken nearly every possible musical form over the nearly four centuries since the writer’s death. There are the obvious ones that spring to everyone’s mind, such as the operas, particularly those of Verdi, retelling the stories of some of the plays. There are settings as art songs by many composers, particularly the English ones of the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, of the songs within some of the plays and of some of the sonnets. Then there are the less well-known works, such as Berlioz’ ‘symphonie dramatique,’ Roméo et Juilette for orchestra, soloists and chorus. There are ballets, such as Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There are also purely instrumental works, such as Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, to name just a few based on the same play. And there are even works of chamber music and for solo instrument that profess to draw their inspiration from the works of the bard. The total number of works inspired by this single author must hover in the thousands, and he is by far the writer who has inspired the most music of any.

Summer has also always featured some of his own compositions, particularly his Oxford Songs that now number over eighty, on the programs. This iteration was no exception. It featured mostly art songs, some by Summer, others by sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and twentieth-century English composers, mostly with string quartet accompaniment, and a movement (the second) from Summer’s latest string quartet, The Garden of Forking Paths, that references/ incorporates elements of a sixteenth-century harpsichord work by William Byrd, the Earl of Oxford March, which was played first. Not all of the texts were Shakespearean; some were by his contemporaries such as John Fletcher and George Peele; one was by John Milton, another by twentieth-century writer William Butler Yeats. There was music by Thomas Morley and Thomas Arne, by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock, and by Michael Tippett. There were numerous interconnections among the works, including settings of the same text by multiple composers (Morley’s and Vaughan Williams’ “It Was a Lover & His Lass,” for example) and Summer’s Full Fathom Five and Tippett’s Songs for Ariel, which set two of the same texts from The Tempest within their three-song sets, all in all a very carefully laid out and very successful sequence. The program concluded with four individual songs (two of which are actually extracted from a set of three) by Peter Warlock for string quartet accompaniment, works among his rather limited output that are rarely performed and that are quite lovely. I personally find this type of song accompaniment, for which Summer seems to have a predilection, extremely satisfying, and the repertoire is considerably larger than those few works, such as Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge (which also includes a piano) and Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, that are performed (or even recorded) with any degree of frequency.

One performance detail that was not successful, however, was the use of a piano for works where a harpsichord was designated; it overpowered the texts in a way the latter would not have, and was inappropriate for the evening’s sole keyboard work, composed before the piano was invented. The performances by the soloists: soprano, Andrea Chenoweth, mezzo Kellie Van Horn, and tenor Justin Vickers, and the instrumentalists: pianist Ian Watson (also the music director) and the Kalmia String Quartet, were fine, although Van Horn’s diction was not quite as crystal clear as that of her colleagues; she did, however, perform two of her numbers from memory, which freed her to be more expressive.

Summer’s music is unmistakably modern, but very tonal. It is also very pleasing, and follows/supports the texts appropriately and interestingly. Within this general context, there is a great deal of variety. Some songs are presented in a very straightforward, traditional manner while others are more complexly interwoven. For example, the settings of Sonnets 97 and 98 are presented as a pair in a single work, with some of their lines overlapping, some repeated but others not, in a sort of operatic duet fashion. This was lovely and very satisfying, in some ways the high point of the evening’s fare for this listener, although it was not always easy to understand or even follow the printed texts.

The printed program was a bit confusing and would have benefited from a re-organization and more careful proof-reading. It presented the artist bios first, followed by the program essays/notes, and then the program listing itself, with the texts for the songs last (as they should be, but one of them was not in proper sequence). It would be more logical to present the program itself first. No life dates of the composers were given, which would be a good idea with such a mixture of periods. Summer implicitly engages in the William Shakespeare/Edward de Vere authorship debate in his notes about his settings, a subject that might better be left aside so as not to distract from the musical merit of the compositions, which is considerable – they deserve a wider hearing.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009.

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  1. A ‘William Byrd Festival’ will celebrate this great composer of Shakespeare’s time. It will be held at St Peter & St Church Stondon Massey (Essex) from 7 – 15 May 2011. William Byrd (c1540 – 1623) lived at Stondon for the last 30 years of his life.

    Comment by Andrew Smith — April 11, 2011 at 12:43 am

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