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Fairies and Sprites in Symphony Hall


Abigail Fischer and Amanda Forsythe (Winslow Townson photo)
Abigail Fischer and Amanda Forsythe (Winslow Townson photo)

Marking the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death, last night the BSO offered music inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Andris Nelsons presided over the familiar—Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music (thereto), Weber’s Oberon Overture, and the newer—Henze’s Symphony No. 8—in a combination concert and performance art event.

Oberon is remembered mostly for its overture. Written at the end of the composer’s short life and based on Wieland’s epic inspired by the famous play, the opera balances mortals and fairies and the overture, built upon snippets from the larger work, likewise straddles two worlds. From fleet to regally ponderous, this score captures the paradox of being a king (regal) and a fairy (light, verging on nebulous, as well as ominous). Despite the use of reduced strings Nelsons and the BSO sounded uniformly heavy throughout. That Germanic reading befitted the composer perhaps more than the brilliantly Italianate character the music achieves.

Commissioned by the BSO’s New Works Fund, Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 8 premiered in Symphony Hall on October 1st 1993 with Seiji Ozawa conducting and the composer in the audience. Henze is known for combining twelve-tone harmonies in classical forms with an overarching sense of singing (“quite simply, the manifestation of life,” he famously pronounced). This three-movement symphony takes inspiration from scenes and the general atmosphere of Midsummer. The opening Allegro moderato oscillates interestingly and colorfully before becoming a perpetuum mobile, destabilized and destabilizing, with melodic lines appearing as rays of light through the busy chiaroscuro, especially at movement’s end. The middle, Ballabile: Allegremento con comodo, con tenerezzaAria: Tempo II un pochino meno mosso- Canzonetta, puts listeners in the middle of an urban scene reflective of modern life. At times we hear swing from a neighborhood juke joint, then we lumber away, low brass leading the way. The Aria recalls the indulgent glamor of urbanity now linked to long-gone and lately much lamented airline, Pan Am. The Canzonetta evokes Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses with its perpetual agitation but without that composer’s crunchy lyricism. The Adagio finale opens midstream in Wagner’s Rhine but what glitters is not gold. Sadness subsumes this Lorelei. The symphony ends quietly, a dream fading away. Scored for large ensemble, the piece challenges all parts individually and the ensemble as a whole; seated on the floor, I could not hear all lines even as I saw hands flying over instruments. What remains is a series of impressions, episodic, disjointed, and only loosely cohering into a symphony. This symphony overflows with influences, and some intriguing orchestration, though the connection to Shakespeare appears tenuous.

After the intermission, the concert seemingly ended and the performance art began. For the Mendelssohn, the Boston Symphony Orchestra became an on-stage pit ensemble, pushed behind the actors, the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus crowding in upstage. A screen downstage obscured the organ and allowed images to be projected above the heads of the performers. Before the music began, Carson Elrod took the stage as Mendelssohn, and with nib pen scratched out (we heard that through the speakers) a note to his sister Fanny (drawing of her projected, along with cover of the Overture score) about King Fredrick commissioning incidental music for the play. As the Overture began, we continued to see the same images of score cover, drawings of Felix and Fanny, and Elrod perused the score, nodding along with the music. Antonio Weissinger as a Young Mendelssohn sat on a bed downstage right, playing chess against himself. Oberon (Will Lyman) and Titania (Karen MacDonald) entered and exited mostly through the orchestra, with Oberon (notably) appearing in the hall a couple times. Let me dispatch the music portion of this review: Soprano Amanda Forsythe took an excellent turn in the Song, her voice light and supple as befit the music. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer sang more darkly. As singers and actors were all miked; balance and projection were fine.

Bill Barclay, Stage Director and Adaptor, with help from Kathleen Doyle, Costume Designer, Cristina Todesco, Set Designer, and Hillary Leben, Video Artist conceived this vision. Barclay, a Weston, Mass., native is Director of Music at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. I would like to see how he realizes productions there. Here we noted unresolved tension between music and words. At times, the orchestra played. At times phrases of music were held until after some lines. At times actors spoke over the music. As I understand it, Mendelssohn’s music was more used as he wrote it, during the play, and not excerpted in phrasal units. Last night took more liberties, including making Mendelssohn a character—two, actually—in the stage business. Actors doubled characters confusingly: Mendelssohn was Puck and Bottom, Wall and Moonlight and Pyramus, Peter Quince and Robin Goodfellow; Young Mendelssohn was Puck and Thisbe; only Oberon and Titania remained always one character. Most of the words were taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not all; at one point Mendelssohn spoke as though he were a Shakespearean character and the effect was of a 20-something of today whining in the wrong period language. (I am sure Joss Whedon could have made it work effectively.) A text (presumably written by Barclay?) added another layer of confusion. Elrod and Weissinger were standout actors, especially in the over-acted Pyramus and Thisbe show put on by the Rustics). As for the video, when it was not projecting images of Mendelssohn’s scores or drawings, it featured generic scenes of nature. Oberon concluded the show by holding aloft an LED tea candle, representing a sprite; those in the audience provided with same lighted theirs and held them aloft throughout the hall. Interesting idea, perhaps, but coming so late in the show it was a distracting surprise. On the whole, I witnessed a messy and anachronistic jumble.

To be clear: I am not opposed to multimedia performances where acting, music, stagecraft and video art, share the spotlight, yet I hold no truck with cack-handed extravaganzas. There must be an underlying cohesion to the spectacle, not a surfeit of competing, disparate elements. A noted Shakespeare scholar and impresario of historically informed productions of the Bard’s works, described those original events as a gathering of the greatest actors and musicians in the land, combining forces to to create fabulous entertainment. Last night we witnessed a pale imitation.

Actors at Symphony Hall (Winslow Townson phjoto0
Will Lyman, Karen MacDonald, & Carson Elrod (Winslow Townson photo)
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I fell asleep, as did my companion. And neither of us were particularly tired.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — January 30, 2016 at 6:07 am

  2. On Friday the orchestra (horns!) played beautifully under fine direction, but their sound was sometimes muddied by pickup through the actors’ mikes. I quibble with “reduced strings” in the
    von Weber — the violins were 12, 12.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 30, 2016 at 9:06 am

  3. A few comments based on my attendance on Thursday —

    James Somerville nailed the solos on “Oberon.” It’s expected that he will, but still, I’m sure it’s always satisfying for a horn player to do them so flawlessly. At the time, I was also very happy with the performance of the Weber overall, but I think I know what Mr. Prince means.

    As I have said on other occasions, it’s great to have curtain raisers such as concert or opera overtures.

    I’m a bit surprised at Mr. Prince’s description of the Henze having nothing to do with the scenario in the program booklet. Did he avoid reading the note so as to come to the symphony without presuppositions or expectations?

    The idea of putting the Mendelssohn music in a context to bring out its meaning is not inherently bad, and I think as done it had some value. But eventually the stage action became a distraction from listening to the music, and ultimately the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

    I only realized when I saw the picture accompanying the review, that Ms. Fischer and Forsythe’s costumes are suggestive of the stepsisters in Cinderella. I couldn’t put my finger on it during the performance.

    I was seated in the front row of the second balcony left near the stage. About a third of the actors’ area was invisible, except through the chinks in the railing, which meant that a fair amount of the stage business was wasted. Management should have it in mind that many side balcony seats have very badly obstructed views and should offer much lower ticket prices when they are going to have staged action.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 30, 2016 at 7:57 pm

  4. I also found the Mendelssohn disappointing. Conceptually, it was over the top and seemed more like a “family concert.”
    The solo singers could not be heard on Saturday evening. There were problems with the microphones and some consonants were obscured.

    The orchestral renditions were excellent in both halves of the program.

    Comment by Bonnie — January 31, 2016 at 4:30 pm

  5. Mr. Prince said “As singers and actors were all miked; balance and projection were fine.” Actually—at least on Saturday night, when I heard this progrogram—only the speaking was amplified; the sound amplification was off when the singers sang. To my taste, this is usually problematic, since singing tends to feel a bit distant and underpowered when juxtaposed against larger-than-life speech (the reverse of our normal experience). From my seat on the side of the first balcony, the intelligibility of speech through the sound system was less than ideal, a consequence of the placement and directional characteristics of the loudspeakers, which work better for listeners on the floor and in the center balconies. I wish the amplification had been a bit more subtle too, which could have made the speech–singing balance work better.

    I heard a Magic Flute in Miami a few years ago in which the spoken dialogue was amplified and the singing was not. On that occasion, too, the difference in acoustic perspective was jarring, and didn’t show the singers at their best. Obviously, these works were written for unamplified speaking as well as singing, which requires stage declamation rather than natural cinema-style speech from the actors; perhaps something to be explored again.

    I was very proud of my Tanglewood Festival Chorus colleagues, who brought ideal tone color and exemplary diction to their role as the fairies in Shakespeare’s play. They too were part of the “music portion” of this work.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — January 31, 2016 at 11:45 pm

  6. The image of the singers from Thursday shows head-mikes. We will ask management about this.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 1, 2016 at 1:54 am

  7. The singers were wearing microphones, but they were clearly used for dialogue and turned off for singing.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — February 1, 2016 at 10:13 am

  8. BSO confirms: The singers were amplified only when they had lines, not while they were singing. The mix didn’t vary from performance to performance.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 1, 2016 at 2:16 pm

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