Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Singing a song of Shakespeare

Musica Sacra in action.

Last weekend's concert by Musica Sacra was devoted to choral works derived from Shakespeare's texts, and proved for me an exercise in a strange, but pleasurable, displacement. I am so familiar with these songs (or speeches) in their dramatic context (I once even penned my own setting for a song from Midsummer) that it was hard for me to adjust to their translation into a musically beautiful, but thematically simpler, new form. Here, for instance, the symbolism of Sylvia in Two Gentlemen of Verona had gone utterly missing, as had the irony of "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind" from As You Like It, along with the rueful experience of "O Mistress Mine" from Twelfth Night. Stranger still, as music is one of the Bard's great subjects, I was struck by the fact that a concord of sweet sounds seems somehow far more intellectually interesting when Shakespeare's talking about it than when it's actually being heard.

Perhaps that's why relatively few great composers have attempted to set the Bard to melody; a great musical artist can probably perceive the peculiar challenge of lyrics by the greatest writer who ever lived - and who needs that kind of competition? A lesser talent, however, might hope to bask in something like the Bard's reflected glory. Hence many of these pieces were lovely, but superficial, as they almost have to be - as choral writing. with its multiple vocal lines and endless rising and falling dynamics, inevitably puts a focus on a song's musical surface rather than the contradictions and subtle inflections of its lyrics. For those with little knowledge of the plays, of course, Shakespeare's verses can look deceptively simple and pretty, and this approach is charming. For me, however - and perhaps many others - the effect was rather like sensing a huge aesthetic statement floating silently just off-stage.

Still, sometimes this wasn't the case; plenty of songs in Shakespeare are pure diversion - some, like "It Was a Lover and His Lass," are almost obviously designed to cover a costume or scene change, and perhaps not surprisingly, these were brought to a richer musical polish than ever could be managed in a stage production. Elsewhere gorgeous sound-painting reigned supreme - the eerie whistling in Matthew Harris' "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind," for instance, was highly effective, as were the calling cuckoos in George Mcfarren's "When Daisies Pied," from Love's Labour's Lost. And sometimes a setting did seem to conjure something close to the mood of the play at that point - stand-outs along these lines were Harris's setting of Ariel's "Full fathom five" speech, and David Hamilton's intriguing treatment of Caliban's "Be not afear'd; the isle is full of noises" soliloquy from The Tempest. And the evening ended with a spiritedly spooky (but hardly menacing) setting of the witches' cauldron song from Macbeth by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.

Perhaps most strange, however, was that the best pieces on the program, Macfarren's "Orpheus with His Lute," Orlando Gibbons's "What is Our Life?," and Robert Ramsey's "Sleep, Fleshly Birth," weren't based on Shakespeare at all - which made one wonder whether lyrics less dense than those of the Bard may actually be best suited to choral song. And this kind of perceived anomaly inevitably led one to wish for more analysis than that proffered in the program by director Mary Beekman, whose comments tended to run along the lines of "What a treat!" Indeed, yes - still, one longed for more insight into her selection process, which seemed to skip back and forth across time and space, yet generally settle in a rather conservative musical mode. Beekman delivered on the podium, however - she drew a lovely sound from the Musica Sacra singers, and managed a subtly pleasing dynamic. The chorus is strongest in its sopranos, who strike a beautifully clear, almost crystalline tone - in general its women are stronger than its men, who don't seem to have much of a low end. And Beekman doesn't really have an outstanding alto or baritone, either, so the polyphony of several pieces tend to blend rather than variegate. That she triumphed over these gaps by sculpting the resulting amalgam into a consistently pleasing form spoke to an un-showy but resourceful and sensitive talent. The Musica Sacra singers are lucky to have her, and we're lucky to have them.

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