Summer’s work keeps spirit of the bard in tune

By John Zeugner | Worcester Telegram & Gazette

WORCESTER – Setting the Bard to music is no cakewalk. Most composers just key off Shakespeare’s plots or sentiments. Mendelssohn’s mood piece on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” have entered the permanent repertoire, as has Verdi’s magic opera “Falstaff” – a blend of Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” and a couple of the Henry Plays.

Very few composers have tried to set the Bard’s actual words to notes. That’s a nervy undertaking, since the music of his language can overwhelm the composer’s intention. Or worse, the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s conceptions can conflict in some listener’s mind with whatever interpretation the musical version presents.

Worcester’s own composer Joseph Summer has taken up the challenge, not only setting several Shakespeare sonnets to music but, more ambitiously, setting scenes and soliloquies from “Hamlet” to piano, harp and voice illustration.

Summer, who has written several operas, including a cycle based on Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” has put together a remarkable and complex mix of his compositions dealing with Shakespeare, as well as some by others in a production that appeared yesterday at Clark University’s Razzo Hall in the new Traina Art Center.

The Gala Guild Shakespeare Concert brought together a terrific ensemble of very gifted young instrumentalists and vocalists. The program got under way with pianist Miroslav Sekera playing te last movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, nicknamed “The Tempest,” allegedly after Shakespeare’s play. Sekera immediately signaled the level of professionalism pervading this group; he had won Brahms and Chopin competitions in Europe, and his rendering of Beethoven was lush, rushed and compelling.

If the link to the Bard was a bit tentative in this opener, the second offering of Summer’s rendering of Ophelia’s mad scene fully comprehended Shakespeare’s compassion and complexity.

Heather Curley, a poised, polished soprano, brought lilt and anguish to Ophelia’s diemma, as did Alan Schneider, from the Boston Lyric Opera, as Laertes. Sekera’s accompaniment completed the nuanced, complex lyricism Summer had composed.

The next two Summer compositions featured harpist Anna Reinersman accompanying Eve Gigliotti, a soprano who had been with the Seattle Opera singing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Summer’s rather direct version of the text may have missed the sarcasm of the lines, or he may have perfectly captured that ambiguity. It would take several hearings to settle the issue, since his compositional voice s idiosyncratic, complicated and fascinating.

The chemistry between pianist and composer David McGinn of the Clark faculty and Tom O’Toole, a baritone with a very big voice, in Verdi’s aria “E sogno?” from “Falstaff” was electric.

Further on in the program, Summer tossed in an arcane joke of sorts by staging Shakespeare’s 128th sonnet as a seductive dialogue between violinist Peter Hughes and soprano Curly.

The concert concluded with two musical version of Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy: Ambroise Thomas’s 19th-century French version and Summer’s. No contest – Summer, clear winner. The full opera version of “Hamlet” that Joseph Summer is working on promises to be a signal musical event.