Musicians Celebrate the Bard at New England Conservatory

By Sarah Canice Funke | Classical Music Performances and Suite

Directed by Joseph Summer, the annual Shakespeare Concerts have celebrated the Bard since 2003. This year’s performance was sparsely attended but rewarded the loyal.

On March 16-17, while many Irish Massachussetts residents were wearing green and frequenting New England’s pubs, Worcester’s Clark University and Boston’s New England Conservatory took several Bard-inspired works and had a celebration of their own. An annual event, the Shakespeare Concerts have been bringing the playwright to musical life since 2003. This year’s two-night festival featured a performance at Clark University’s Razzo Hall (March 16) and the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall (March 17).

The works of Shakespeare have informed Western literature for centuries, and quotes from his plays pepper everyday speech. It’s no wonder that the Bard has inspired several composers. From Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ setting of “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” the classical music literature is full of references to Shakespearean characters and stories.

Being the artistic director has its perks, and this year’s Shakespeare Concerts predominantly featured the works of its director Joseph Summer. Dressed in a dapper tuxedo that set off his distinguished silver head of hair, Summer received a standing ovation at the close of the performance. His setting of Twelfth Night had received its world premiere at this festival. Gathered together on the program were a range of early 20th century composers, including early film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (famous for his scores to The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk) and French composer Francis Poulenc. Most works were vocal settings of monologues from Shakespeare’s plays.

The string quartet QX (Krista Buckland Reisner, Rohan Gregory, Peter Sulski, Jan Müller-Szeraws) were veteran Shakepeare Concert musicians, as was tenor Alan Schneider. Mezzo-soprano Kellie Van Horn brought us Portia’s monologue on mercy and soprano Patrice Tiedman gave an agonized performance of heart-broken Cleopatra. Baritone Paul Soper played a sympathetic Shylock.

Despite the free admission price, Jordan Hall was scarcely half filled, perhaps an indication that most Bostonians preferred to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the pub. But those who attended were treated to music that was in turn compelling and playful: the musicians put their hearts into Shakespeare’s tragedy and comedy despite the empty seats. The final piece, Summer’s setting of “When That I Was And a Little Tiny Boy” from Twelfth Night, was acted brilliantly, with tenor Alan Schneider striding out on stage in an overcoat and pork pie hat, vainly trying to stay out of the rain that “raineth every day.”

The loyal audience also experienced the rare bonus of getting to hear Miroslav Sekera in concert. A child prodigy himself on violin and piano, Sekera also played the boy Mozart in the 1984 film Amadeus. Perhaps next year the concerts won’t collide with a major Bostonian holiday and more of New England’s classical music fans will be able to enjoy yet another celebration of Shakespeare’s words in song.

Sources: Summer, Joseph. “The Shakespeare Concerts 2008 Program Notes.”

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