Marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the New Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Francisco Noya became the latest local group to present orchestral works inspired by the master’s plays, adding outstanding readings of scenes from Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet by a quartet of actors. The rich double bill paid a worthy tribute to the greatest playwright. The setting of First Baptist Church in Newton moreover provided the perfect ambiance: with its massive and handsomely detailed millwork, it can easily double as an Elizabethan theater.
Before the start on Saturday, executive director (also principal cellist) Adrienne Hartzell paid tribute to the previous music director, founder Ron Knudsen, who died last spring. The season is dedicated to his memory. Hartzell announced that interim music director Francisco Noya has been chosen to be permanent. Also being honored was founding violinist Manny Abrams on his 92nd birthday. Still active (he stood from his position in the second violins, looking not a day over 60), he has also been honored by the French government with a Croix de guerre for his contributions to the liberation of France during World War II.
Hartzell characterized the New Philharmonia as a regional nonprofessional orchestra. As with any orchestra, the shortcut to assessing quality is the intonation of the winds and the quality of the first violins. From the first moments of the opening piece, Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai, it was clear that New Philharmonia can hold its own with any band in the area. The violins played their high C opening extremely pianissimo (another measure of quality) and the whole piece had a lighthearted, easy manner quite in keeping with the opera’s comic nature.
Next onstage came actors Tina Packer (founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Co) and Nigel Gore (whose credits include an Eliot Norton Award for Outstanding Actor). Packer discussed the English troupe that came to Paris to perform Romeo & Juliet in the early 1800s, which included the actress Harriet Smithson, who is familiar to lovers of Berlioz as his femme fatale muse for the Symphonie Fantastique. Packer and Gore then read the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet with delightful simplicity. Gore conveyed a dreamy Romeo and Packer played the excitable and intense Juliet with minimalist power.
The orchestra then gave a fervent reading of the love scene from Berlioz’s Romeo & Juliet. The viola and cello sections in unison had their moment in the sun, and the winds’ difficult pulsating rhythmic section was offered with deep feeling and skill.
After intermission, actors Jason Asprey and Sarah Bowles joined their colleagues to read Hamlet and Ophelia, while Packer interpreted Gertrude. Nigel Gore proved himself a mercurial and versatile in characterizing Horatio, Claudius, the gravedigger, and the Ghost as distinct individuals with different voices and affects. The readings were woven over and through the incidental music of Shostakovich’s film suite from Hamlet, composed in 1964 for the eponymous Russian film (translation by Bois Pasternack and directed by Grigori Kozintse). While not as sonically jarring as other works from the composer, it is still solid Shostakovich: militaristic, powerful, and jagged, especially the unison strings overlaid by the horns in the opening. Other outstanding moments came with the piccolo, solo violin and tambourine accompanying the scene with Yorick in the graveyard, and the eerie, sad harpsichord music for Ophelia’s mad scene, in which Bowles was outstanding, conveying an anger and instability that were seriously disturbing. Asprey gave a very strong performance in the title role—angry, and full of the requisite sorrow and confusion.
It is clear that Ron Knudsen and his musicians created an ensemble with staying power now perfectly positioned to build on its history. Francisco Noya, whose stage presence is strong and masterful, seems ready to lead the group even higher. Kudos to all.