City of London Sinfonia: Shakespeare - Let Music Sound (Concert Review -The Arts Desk, 2014)
Stratford-upon-Avon calling. The City of London Sinfonia has embarked on a series of three Bard-based October concerts in London to commemorate the 450th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death. The first of the three stopping-off points last night was Southwark Cathedral, in some ways a logical starting-place, since the building proudly asserts its credentials as the parish church nearest to the Globe Theatre. The main work of the evening was Mendelssohn's charming and graceful incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, presented semi-staged, which occupied the whole of a delightful second half.
As a venue for orchestral concerts the Cathedral is not without its drawbacks, mainly the repeated intrusion of grinding and squealing noises from just outside. No, not the sounds of repentant sinners; every few minutes you wince as trains pass a curve in the rail on entering London Bridge station. And if one was looking for the ideal acoustic to hear Mendelssohn's filigree string writing to best advantage, “The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie” would, frankly, be way down the list.
That said, it was worth the occasional discomfort to hear the Mendelssohn so well performed by the orchestra and by the female voices of the Holst Singers (with a single male alto).
The staging of the work in a cathedral did allow director Max Webster to bring off at least one genuinely satisfying coup de theatre. Mendelssohn's famous “Wedding March” started as a concert performance, but the ostensibly empty nave was just a ruse. At the first entry of the orchestral cymbals, the newly-wed couple (Emma Pallant and Richard Hope) suddenly appeared at the middle of the transept, and tripped and gambolled smilingly down the aisle, thanking each row of wedding guests in the congregation as they passed us by.
The lightness and the beauty of Mendelssohn's music really shone through. The two actors, conductor Stephen Layton, and choir and orchestra handled the tricky synchronisation of speech over the orchestral accompaniment in the closing sections flawlessly. The wind chording, capped by Anna Noakes's strong first flute was beautifully done. Layton could have given more of a sense of architecture to the Scherzo, but that's a niggle. This music is all about airiness and pleasure, and Layton's reading had plenty of both. There was a buffo touch of English village maypole am-dram as four musicians from the orchestra came on-stage with the kind of floral headgear normally associated with well-dressing in Stephen Layton's native Derbyshire, but the tone of the theatrical presentation as entertainment was generally more carefully, and less coarsely set by the two main protagonists: Pallant with her darting eyes and crisp consonants, Hope with his kaleidoscopic range of different voices and moods.
The main event of the first half had been the premiere of Owain Park's Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time. Park is a very promising young composer indeed. How young is he? If one source I heard is to be believed, he is just 21. His stylistic palette is already incredibly wide, with hints of everything from Kenneth Leighton to Eric Whitacre. His word-setting is extremely enterprising, and his range of wordless vocal effects from eerie half-tone to humming is also very impressive. Park has a desire to test and stretch the borders of conventional tonality and metre, but also to etch out the contrast by resolving back in each of his six songs into broodingly conventional triadic harmonies and regular pulse.
Finzi's Shakespeare cycle Let Us Garlands Bring was well sung by Neal Davies, one of those highly intelligent, schooled English bass-baritones like Stephen Varcoe or Peter Savidge, who can make the absurdity of a Shakespere's "Hey Nonny No" sound completely natural. His finest moment was a hushed "No Exorciser harm thee" section of “Fear No More the Heat o' the Sun”, when the strings – playing Finzi's own string orchestra arrangement – gave him a genuine pianissimo. There were other moments when Davies had to strain to be heard.
The other works were a brisk opener, Purcell's Fairy Queen Suite for String Orchestra, and Vaughan Williams'sThree Shakespeare Songs from 1951. There were some good strong pedal notes from the Holst Singers' basses in "The Cloud Capp'd Towers", but this set of songs, written for a competition, will always leave stronger impression on the singers dealing with the challenges of performing it – something the fine Holst Singers did with aplomb – than on an audience listening to it.
The broader context for the concert and series was well set in an introductory talk/conversation bringing perspectives on Shakespeare and music from director Max Webster and Bill Barclay, the American-born Director of Music at Shakespeare's Globe.
The rest of the CLS Shakespeare series does look interesting. Rounds two and three will bring the rare – Shostakovich's 1930's music for Hamlet – and also the dangerous-to-know, that curious assemblage of harp, harmonium and piano together in an orchestra, which provide the harmonic wash for Korngold's 1921 incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing, both works being performed at Village Underground. There's also the more conventional – Walton's Henry V music at Cadogan Hall.