Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review of Portland Symphonic Choir: "Shakespeare in Song" with Portland Actors Ensemble

Guest review by Phil Ayers

A gorgeous early May afternoon (Sunday, May 3rd) beckoned most Portlanders to be outside in their yards and gardens, or taking kids and dogs to playgrounds, or taking a long stroll along many urban paths. But many of us found our way to St. Mary's Cathedral for a spring concert of word and song. Most of the words were provided by William Shakespeare and the music by a variety of 20th century composers. A new component to a Portland Symphonic Choir concert was introduced with four members of the Portland Actors Ensemble performing portions of plays and sonnets by the Bard. It was an afternoon well-spent, and even the desire to be outside abated. After all, one could, as this reviewer did as soon as he arrived home, remove layers of clothing and get outside as quickly as possible, remembering - and even singing - the delights just heard.

Central to the concert was Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" that was originally composed for sixteen soloists and arranged by the composer for choir and four soloists, with an option of some of the solo passages sung by entire sections. It has a decidedly "chamber-ish" aspect to it, an intimacy, that I felt was captured well by this large choir at its best. While it would have been preferable that the choir be "up front," this performance forced the listener to truly listen, following the exquisite text from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," Act V, Scene i. "Harmony" occurs three times in the text:

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony (twice);

and later,

Such harmony is in immortal souls.

The rich voice of soprano Cameron Griffith Herbert and the lovely violin solo played by Janet George enhanced and highlighted throughout. But the real star (alongside conductor Zopfi and his excellent ensemble) was Douglas Schneider at the organ, playing a piano reduction made by the composer and edited by Michael Kennedy. While an organ is not imitative of a full orchestra, despite theatre organs and such stops on them as xylophone and snare drum and ophicleide, this arrangement worked fabulously well. Schneider is versatile, and at the conclusion of the program proved himself a more-than-adequate jazz pianist. He generously gave this reviewer an informal interview at the intermission, explaining the delightful Gerald Finzi organ piece (not in the program) that he played as the singers made their way to the gallery and the fact that the gallery organ, a refurbished 19th century instrument, "is a Vaughan Williams organ."

The concert opened with Vaughan Williams' settings of "Full Fathom Five," "The Cloud-Capp'd Towers," and "Over Hill, Over Dale." These are a capella choruses, the second for double-chorus, from "The Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." According to the program notes, the composer "… said that the entire set was based on the words 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on.'"

When I saw that George Shearing's music would be on this program, I thought of that marvelous blind English pianist, more noted for his jazz piano work, but recalling that a friend had programmed an organ piece by Shearing on a program once. So I knew that this composer was able to move from classically-wrought music to jazz and back again. The excellent diction in "Music to Hear" ("Sonnet #8") was notable and the piano and bass (played by Kevin Deitz) accompanied Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day with the familiar line "And summer's lease hath all too short a date." "Is It for Fear to Wet a Widow's Eye" ("Sonnet #9"), a chant-like episode by women choristers holding forth, concluded the first Shearing set.

The live actors' parts were interspersed between musical portions, often leading into them, as the part from "Richard II", Act II, Scene ii, with its many references to "harmony" that would re-appear in the Serenade that followed on its heels. This scene has the familiar ode to England, "This sceptered isle … this blessed plot … this England!"

As the Vaughan Williams "Serenade" concluded, a standing ovation finished the first part of the program, the audience obviously enchanted and thrilled with the artistry, subtlety and sheer glory of this work.

Four Shakespeare Songs by New York composer Matthew Harris (b. 1956) opened the second half of the program. His six-volume collection of Shakespeare's songs includes these four from books three and four, written in the nineties. They range in style from wistful and folk-like in "It Was a Lover and His Lass" to the raucous in "When Daffodils Begin to Peer" (program notes). In a few spots, a sense of ensemble was lacking in the chorus. These selections were conducted by Kathryn Lehmann, assistant conductor.

Emma Lou Diemer's "Three Madrigals" followed with no pauses between them. This is "accessible music," a term I've become fond of, and I use here to create an image of someone new to hearing this sort of music and liking Diemer's music in particular. They were accompanied by piano which provided a solid underpinning to the choral parts. Again, the listener could be reminded of memorized Shakespeare from school days, with "Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty!" from "Twelfth Night" and "Hey nonny, nonny" from "Sigh No More Ladies" ("Much Ado About Nothing"). Again, the actors provided a lead-in to these madrigals with a very lengthy selection from "Twelfth Night," I, v.

More from "Twelfth Night" was acted well by Olivia Shimkus, leading into a set of seven short, pithy songs "reminiscent of the renaissance genre of the madrigal in which the text and music were intimately intertwined" (program notes) by Ned Rorem that he composed in 1951 in Paris. Here were non-Shakespearean texts, except for the last "attributed" to the Bard; this included an excellent setting of the text that begins, "Crabbed age and youth cannot live together … Youth is nimble, age is lame … Age, I do defy thee: O, sweet shepherd, hie thee, / For methinks thou stay'st too long." Along the way, there were some slight intonation problems that were quickly righted.

A well-acted portion of "Troilus and Cressida" segued well into more George Shearing from his "Music to Hear", composed for the Dale Warland Singers in 1985 for chorus, piano and string bass. They were settings of the familiar "Blow, blow thou winter wind / Thou art not so unkind / As man's ingratitude" and "Sigh no more, ladies … men were deceivers ever … Then sigh not so, / But let them go / And be you blithe and bonny …". Heads nodded and toes tapped during these two!

I found myself saying as I left the Cathedral into the bright afternoon warm sun, "'Serenade to Music' and George Shearing were worth the price of admission!"

As far as I know, this is the first time Portland Symphonic Choir has teamed with four professional Shakespearean actors. Olivia Shimkus, Douglas Reynolds, Jen Elkington and Curt Hanson, directed by Asae Dean performed well and engaged the audience, as some of us craned our necks backward to grasp the words. How I yearned to have Shakespeare's texts in hand, or at least know the "canon" better. As noted above, many times the drama segued into the musical portions; at other times I wondered what, exactly, was going on. But it was all pleasurable and fun.

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