Thursday, March 31, 2011
By James David Jacobs | Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The Tempest was written and premiered exactly four centuries ago in 1611. It's the last play that Shakespeare wrote without collaboration. And it's one of only two plays he wrote which is not an adaptation of an existing story or history.
(The other one is Love’s Labours Lost, one of Shakespeare’s first plays.)
It is truly an original work, one that stands at the crossroads of theatrical history: between the Renaissance and the Baroque, between the Elizabethan theatre of the imagination and the Jacobean spectacle, between the primacy of the word and the primacy of sensory entertainment.
The common link between all of these is music. It's no coincidence that at the same time these upheavals were taking place in England, the art form known as opera was being born in Italy (the first operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, was premiered in 1607.)
One of the most remarkable aspects of the play is how aware it is of its own historical position, how consciously Shakespeare bids farewell to past trends and welcomes new ones, reinventing himself even at the end of his career. This is particularly evident in his use of music and sound cues, which are integrated into the text in an unprecedented way.
Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
(Caliban, Act III scene ii)
At just over 2,000 lines, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays on the page (only The Comedy of Errors has fewer lines), but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the shortest in performance.
There are many places where the music takes over, and whole scenes are performed in mime and dance, or, most remarkably, with the characters themselves just standing there listening to the music along with the audience.
We have a better idea of what the music in the original production sounded like than we do for any other Shakespeare play. That's thanks to surviving settings by the composer and lutenist Robert Johnson of two songs from the play ("Full Fathom Five" and "Where the Bee Sucks").
Since this play was written to be played indoors for a court theatre, there were possibilities for more subtlety in the scoring than would be possible at an outdoor theater, and we can be sure Shakespeare took advantage of that; you certainly couldn’t hear a solo lute, or a viol consort, at the Globe.
(Another new innovation of the indoor theater was intermission; outdoor productions were played without a break, but court performances had long intermissions with plenty of refreshments available, not unlike the Metropolitan Opera today. Near the end of Act III scene i, Miranda says to Ferdinand, apropos of nothing related to the plot, “And now farewell / Till half an hour hence.”)
While many of Shakespeare’s plays have inspired musical settings through the years, what’s unique about The Tempest is how few changes are necessary to make the play adaptable to music of many centuries, not to mention film.
Many of the settings of Romeo and Juliet, for example, could just as easily refer to the older tragic love stories Shakespeare himself drew on when writing that play. But The Tempest is truly a world Shakespeare himself created, and it is no coincidence that it is the least dated of Shakespeare’s plays, the one that requires the least translation for a modern audience.
And one of the main reasons for this is that it is the play in which he puts the most trust in the power of music.
In March, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a concert devoted in large part to music inspired by Williams Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Thomas Adès conducted scenes from his own opera based on the play, along with Tempest-inspired pieces by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. In addition, Anthony Marwood was the soloist for Adès's Violin Concerto, "Concentric Paths." Adès talked with Brian Bell about the entire concert, including the conception of a program built around The Tempest:
Hear WGBH's BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with
composer and conductor Thomas Adès.
Hear WGBH's BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with
soprano Hila Plitmann.
By Brian McCreath | Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The Fraser Performance Studio at 99.5 All Classical is the site of countless gorgeous, powerful, transcendent performances, but it's hard to think of a time when there was more laughter than when Igudesman and Joo visited this week.
Based in Vienna, the British-Korean pianist and Russian violinist arrived for their Boston debut late in the afternoon. An audience was set to arrive just before 8:00 p.m, and as the duo settled in, sound engineer Antonio Oliart worked with producer Alan McLellan and host Cathy Fuller to finalize the details of the show. Along the way, Hyung-ki Joo tried out the Hamburg Steinway Model D. Not sure if he was pleased, or maybe just getting into character...
Fortunately, his opinion seemed to change once he was joined by his partner-in-crime, Aleksey Igudesman.
And they really got down to business when Aleksey began working on, well, "extended technique."
But unbeknownst to those in the studio, quite a scene was developing outside, in the hallway and lobby of WGBH's headquarters.
Aleksey enjoyed just a few more minutes of calm before the storm ...
... which came when the crowd stormed the hall (actually, they were much more polite than that).
Cathy got things started ...
Once introduced, the duo began with a lovely piece by ... Mozart.
Until, well ...
Once signals got straightened out, true "emotion" was allowed to emerge.
By this time the audience was in stitches, and Cathy did her best to keep things under control. The rest of the program included a collision of the sacred and the profane in the form of Bach and Piazzolla (no exaggeration: a collision), as well as an exploration of the long-term dreams of each of the players (hint: The Simpsons).
After the radio program ended, the duo came back for a fun few minutes of questions.
The crowd left happy, and Igudesman and Joo ... left.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Sunday afternoon at 3pm, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Peter Oundjian combine forces for a concert featuring the blazing Capriccio Espagnol by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the Symphony No. 5 by Ralph Vaughan Williams, composed during the throes of World War II. Israeli pianist Shai Wosner joins the orchestra as the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20.
Peter Oundjian has been in the news recently for two reasons. The former violinist with the Tokyo String Quartet was named Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2004, at a time when the very survival of the orchestra was in question. As detailed last week in the New York Times, though, the orchestra is not just back from the brink, it's thriving under Oundjian's leadership.
In addition, Oundjian has just been named as the next Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a position he'll hold concurrently with the directorship in Toronto.
Here is the trailer for a documentary produced just as Oundjian was beginning his position in Toronto:
By Brian McCreath | Monday, March 21, 2011
For more information about the performers and presenters featured on this week's programs, visit
Japan Society of Boston
Boston Conservatory Piano and String Masters Series
First Monday at Jordan Hall, featuring the Parker and Jupiter String Quartets on April 4
Peter Sykes, in concert on March 21, presented by Cambridge Society for Early Music
Andover Chamber Music Series
Borromeo String Quartet, performing on March 26 at Indian Hill Music
Boston Early Music Festival
Victor Rosenbaum performs on Friday, March 25, presented by Chamber Music Foundation of New England
Montreal Chamber Music Festival, May 5-28; to hear Schumann's Piano Quintet, visit NPR Music
Matthew Polenzani and Julius Drake perform Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin on Thursday, March 26, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
By Brian McCreath | Sunday, March 20, 2011
Ever since the announcement of James Levine's resignation from his position as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which you can read and hear about via our BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the BSO, and segments on both the Emily Rooney Show and the Callie Crossley Show), one of the names that's popped up consistently as a potential successor to Levine is that of Andris Nelsons.
I'm pretty sure his name would be on most observers' short lists no matter what, based on reviews and impressions of his work as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. But the BSO fanned those flames substantially by engaging the 32-year-old Latvian to replace Levine for the BSO's Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on March 17.
And here are a few impressions from that concert:
Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe wrote that, "he scored a triumph on Thursday night in his BSO debut ... And in what is high praise from this orchestra, the BSO musicians stayed seated during one of Nelsons’s bows and joined the crowd in applauding him, shuffling feet vigorously." Eichler described his presence on the podium as "youthful but unflashy, leading with a podium technique that is far from conventional," which led to an "organic quality of the music-making, a sense of deep and thoughtful immersion in the musical moment at hand" and "some of the strongest playing of the season."
Overall, Eichler saw and heard "the full partnering of conductor and ensemble in the creation of a vibrant performance." Read the full review at the Boston Globe.
Meanwhile, at the New York Times, James Oestreich heard something quite different from the Nelsons/BSO combo. According to him, Nelsons "did not have [the BSO] sounding its best. It wasn’t so much a question of wrong notes or rhythms and the like, though there were those. It was more a matter of blatancy and imbalance." Calling the performance "muscular" (and that's not meant as praise in this work), he went on to say that, "Almost everything was at least a notch too loud, and almost everything surged to the foreground. Textures were cluttered. Accompanimental figures often seemed italicized."
It wasn't completely unsuccessful, as "Mr. Nelsons persuasively stressed the humor in the scherzo and the wildness in the Rondo-Burleske." But clearly Oestreich is not yet convinced that this relationship need be explored further. Full review (plus impressions of the concert conducted by Roberto Abbado, available at the New York Times.
Finally, a blog I only became aware of because of this concert, thousandfold echo, says that Oestreich's perceptions were accurate, but that rather than consider them a negative, the attention to detail is actually a positive: "Some approach Mahler’s intricate counterpoint by thinning out and clarifying the textures; Nelsons and the BSO took a more satisfying approach of endowing the inner voices with soloistic color and phrasing. Yet this attention to phrasing never broke up the line or descended to fussy point-making; it all seemed natural."
And the writer, Michael, noticed the same reaction of the players after the performance concluded: "When he came out for the second curtain call, the orchestra refused to rise, and sat there applauding him, until he took a solo bow. By this time the audience was on its feet."
That last point may turn out to be vitally important. Part of the reason Levine came to the BSO in the first place was the enthusiasm of the players for his work. And major orchestras like the BSO can be downright cranky when they're not on board with a conductor. So if there really is the enthusiasm from the musicians as described in two of these three reviews, BSO management will, in my opinion, be very wise in considering another opportunity to bring in Andris Nelsons for a series of concerts.
I can say, by the way, that Andris Nelsons is a name I thought of, too, when Levine's departure was announced. In the series of concert performances I program for the radio each Wednesday afternoon at 2pm, there have been a couple conducted by him, and my memory of these one-time-use recordings is that they were stellar. I'm intending to do a bit more digging around to see whether we might be able to secure a few more of his concert performances to offer on the air. Stay tuned, as they say.
And if you have more to add about Nelsons or other potential BSO conductors, just pop your thoughts into a comment below.