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November 18, 2003

Dramatic CSO concert provideth neither good music nor good Shakespeare

On Saturday, November 8, I arrived at Symphony Center for a magical mystery tour, knowing nothing more than that the concert I was about to see was called "An Ode to Shakespeare." Since I had just taken the GRE subject test in English literature that morning and crammed the entire day previous, I figured I had enough background in Shakesperiana to understand—yea, even appreciate—whatever was about to take place.

Opening the program at ten minutes to eight, I finally found out what was on the menu: a series of scenes and speeches from Shakespeare's plays, some spoken, others in song settings by twentieth-century composers of various renown, including Gary Fry (who?), Jon Deak (a minor musical celebrity), Donald Fraser (umm…), and two big names, Vaughan Williams and Britten. Acting in Symphony Hall? This promised something new and intriguing.

The concert also included Vaughan Williams's Ode to Music, which, according to the program, is "one of the loveliest of all Shakespeare settings." Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet would serve as the finale.

The stage was bare except for a harp and a grand piano, both pushed to the side. Gary Fry's "Fanfare" began the program, with sopranos humming in the lower balcony and trombones and percussion playing from the terrace. It was an evocative opening, not least because the lights were dimmer than usual; the atmosphere was more like that of a movie than that of a concert. Dressed in black and holding tea lights, a subset of the chorus came onstage and sang Fry's "To Dream Again," with text from The Tempest. The candles would have been more relevant to Macbeth, since the chorus blew them out at the end of the song, but this opening scene was visually enticing. Also, it had prior artistic validation from the Kenneth Branaugh version of Henry V, in which the first speech is performed in near-darkness, a single match illuminating Branaugh's face.

But as the night went on, the program grew clumsier. It lacked coherence and segue. The scenes shifted from A Midsummer Night's Dream to The Comedy of Errors to Othello in less than half an hour. There were no supertitles, and with hardly any light in the concert hall it was impossible to follow "the words of the Bard." But without reading along, the audience became more and more confused. As I tried to focus and enjoy the music, I became distracted and annoyed by the absence of any narrative continuity. Duaine Wolfe, who conducted the first half of the concert and is director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, could have devoted a whole concert to Midsummer alone. Instead, the program flitted from play to play and context to context, and the stage direction did nothing to hide these lacunae. At the end of Julius Harrison's "I Know a Bank," one Oberon left the stage while a second Oberon entered to perform another scene. Rather than choreographing seamless transitions between vignettes, the actors and singers would file awkwardly offstage while the audience clapped. The acting was decent—Tab Baker, who played both Oberon and Prospero in the course of the evening, was especially powerful—and the singing itself was excellent. The articulation in Vaughan Williams's "Over Hill, Over Dale" was crystal clear. The musical comedy in Michael Orsillo's arrangement of "Have at You with a Proverb" was perfect: just enough comedy, just enough music. As an encore to the first part of the concert, the full chorus sang a Bersteinesque setting of "If We Shadows Have Offended," and this, too, was beautifully crisp and light. Still, neither the strength of the works nor the talent of the chorus members was enough to save the disjointed program.

During intermission, the CIA men (I mean, the CSO stage managers who wear suits to move music stands around) returned the stage to its normally cluttered state, which is how it remained for the rest of the concert. Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, the second half was a little disappointing. In Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music," a typically lush, string-heavy, English pastoral piece, the concertmaster's solo was badly out of tune. The Vaughan Williams also calls for chorus, and the singers here did well. Freed from the responsibility of being Shakespearean actors as well as vocalists, they sounded polished and professional. Filled with substitutes, the orchestra sounded under-rehearsed, but Davis's controlled, energetic conducting, which was a pleasure to watch, did as much as it could to remedy that.

In Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, I sorely missed Mathieu Dufour, the usual principal flautist. The flute solo was breathily uncertain of itself; Mathieu would never have let it be so unrefined. By the end of the piece, the orchestra did manage to congeal somewhat: the percussionist, initially pedantic, really reveled in his later cymbal crashes, and Davis pulled the ensemble together for a tight finish. But why, when so many works had used Shakespeare's pastoral and comedic texts, did Romeo and Juliet appear last on the program? Is this the sound the CSO wanted to leave in our ears after what was supposed to be a delightful evening to celebrate a cultural icon? While Romeo and Juliet's presence is hardly inappropriate on a roster of Shakespeare-inspired music, it would have been better and friendlier to end with "Serenade to Music."

In the program notes, the ever-confident commentator wrote that the evening "began with the words themselves and ended with pure music." As if lyrics violated the inherent chastity of instrumental works! Had every work involved singers, I doubt the audience would have minded. Nor would we have minded hearing from only two dramas and not six. What this CSO performance needed was not so much musicianship as intellectual integrity. Or, if you prefer Shakespeare's words, "imagination all compact."