Nelsons, BSO launch Shakespeare festival with fantasy

January 29, 2016 at 9:47 pm

By David Wright

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Boston Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. Andris Nelsons conducts Weber, Henze and Mendelssohn MENDELSSOHN Incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream

Abigail Fischer and Amanda Forsythe perform with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Charmingly and all too briefly, midwinter yielded to midsummer Thursday night in Symphony Hall.

In the first of three programs commemorating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its music director Andris Nelsons sprinkled metaphorical fairy dust and real (though electric) candlelight over the auditorium with three works linked to the Bard’s most romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

During the concert’s first half, listeners exercised their imaginations in the usual way, conjuring up the dramatic action in their mind’s eye with the aid of Weber’s Overture to Oberon and Hans Werner Henze’s Eighth Symphony.

After intermission, the imagery became real, as Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream accompanied a sort of “five-minute Shakespeare” version of the play enacted in front of the orchestra, complete with actors in costume, sets (or at least a few beds and bowers), atmospheric video projections, and hundreds of electric candles held aloft by the audience.

Of all the works on the BSO’s Shakespeare programs, Oberon has the most tenuous connection to the Bard himself, recounting not a summer night in the woods but the further adventures of the fairy king and his factotum Puck during the time of the Crusades, as related in an epic poem by Christoph Martin Wieland. (In fact, Steven Ledbetter’s informative program note on the Weber piece made no mention of Shakespeare or his forest comedy.)

Fortunately, maestro Nelsons didn’t let literary quibbles get in the way of programming this tuneful and festive overture to kick off his Shakespeare concert series. By the time BSO principal James Sommerville had woven his horn magic in the introduction, and Nelsons had evoked the score’s Puckish and romantic moods and swung into the high-energy recapitulation and coda, the audience couldn’t have cared less whether the action was happening in an English wood, medieval France, or Fenway Park.

After that, it would be hard for any Henze symphony to come off as “sparkling and fairy-tale like,” as Ledbetter’s program note had it. To be fair, the annotator was comparing Henze’s Eighth to his Seventh and Ninth, not to Weber. And indeed, after the Seventh—the piece that inspired the BSO to commission the Eighth from Henze in 1992—one did feel this limner of humanity’s dark side lightening up a little in response to scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In the first movement, for example, a swirl of woodwinds sent Puck on his globe-girdling trip in search of the magic flower that makes people fall in love at first sight. With Straussian relish, Henze deployed his enormous orchestra to open up sonic space and view the earth from 30,000 (or maybe 300,000) feet, while bursts of brass, winds and percussion surged up through the clouds.

But the composer’s dark side and left-wing politics proved irresistible in the second movement, billed as an evocation of the sweet, if bizarre, love scene of the fairy queen Titania and the rustic mortal Bottom with an ass’s head.

Though festooned with markings that translate as “dancelike,” “comfortable” and “with tenderness,” Henze’s score pitted a mass of low winds and brass against a single violin representing Titania, with the result that what Henze called “the vulgar sexism and stupidity of the ass” dominated the movement with its stamping and braying.

Nevertheless, the composer succeeded in closing his symphony in something like the “peaceful and gentle and lovely” atmosphere he observed at the end of Shakespeare’s play. A plaintive English horn solo amid drowsy-sounding strings set the mood, and the vast, many-layered orchestral space opened up again, as dreamy this time as the first movement was urgent.

Nelsons and his large forces seemed to make the most of this rare opportunity to encounter Henze’s “lighter” side, rendering his complex score with energy and precision, while reveling in its broad strokes of orchestral colors.

Following the Henze, Nelsons spoke to the audience, welcoming them to the Shakespeare concerts and requesting a moment of silence in memory of the late Kurt Masur, a frequent guest conductor of the BSO over three decades and father of Ken-David Masur, currently the orchestra’s assistant conductor.

Then things got complicated in the program’s second half, going from “music inspired by Shakespeare” to “a theater piece inspired by Mendelssohn writing music inspired by Shakespeare.”

Or at least so it began, with actors Carson Elrod and Antonio Weissinger portraying Felix Mendelssohn the man and the boy respectively, enacting through pantomime the dilemma of the 34-year-old composer tasked with writing new incidental music that incorporated the miraculous Overture he had written when he was 17.

Video projections by Hillary Leben helped tell the story with portraits, musical scores, and a letter from the composer to his sister Fanny. Having made this point, the adapter and stage director Bill Barclay dropped it and moved on to Shakespeare’s play. No doubt the temptation was there to continue the Mendelssohn story as a play-within-the-play, and one was glad Barclay resisted it.

Also dropped from this performance were the melodramas, the stretches of music Mendelssohn composed to be played under certain portions of Shakespeare’s dialogue. That left, for the most part, music to be played between acts or during breaks in the stage action, i.e., when nothing distracting was going on.

But since in this performance actors and orchestra were onstage continuously with no curtain, Barclay chose to put action with the music: Elrod as Mendelssohn shuffling the pages of his Overture and “hearing in his head” the BSO playing it (à la F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus), and, during the ensuing Scherzo, a pantomime of Queen Titania (actor Karen MacDonald) and a couple of wood nymphs (soprano Amanda Forsythe and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer) invading the mind of both boy and man composer.

Theatrically, it made for a clever transition from the Mendelssohn story to the lovers-in-the-woods story. Musically, it was hard to hear Nelsons and his band playing so expressively and with such fine detail back there in the dark when there was so much visual clutter going on in front of them.

Once the actual performance of Shakespeare excerpts got under way, music and action complemented each other more than competed. Now and then, a few bars of Mendelssohn were dropped in, movie soundtrack-style, to punctuate a scene, with no harm to either. Mostly, the music returned to its function as entr’acte, stage interlude, or processional, and the orchestra’s brilliance and lyricism came to the fore.

Director Barclay effectively invented action and managed the actors, whose voices were necessarily amplified to reach the depths of Symphony Hall. Playing by turns Mendelssohn, Puck, and Bottom, Carson Elrod needed, and had, considerable versatility, physical agility, and comic timing. Young Antonio Weissinger hit all his marks in the pantomimes, amusingly narrated the play within the play, and delivered Puck’s closing speech (“If we shadows have offended”) affectingly.

As for the royals, Karen MacDonald was irresistible as a humorous, feisty Titania tuned in to the music of Shakespeare’s lines. Will Lyman had the courage to play Oberon as a cold, gruff, rather inarticulate ruler, surely knowing it wouldn’t get him an ounce of sympathy from the audience.

Singers Forsythe and Fischer delivered their bits of spoken dialogue effectively. Happily, it seemed their microphones were turned off during the songs “You spotted snakes” and “Through this house give glimmering light,” allowing their own splendid voices—Forsythe’s bell-like and agile, Fischer’s well-supported and creamy–to rise above orchestra and chorus in the usual way.

The women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by guest choral conductor William Cutter, showed their versatility too, putting a soft cushion under the soloists in the lullaby “Ye spotted snakes” and brightly articulating the fairy song “Through this house.”

Video designer Leben’s contribution to the Shakespeare portion of the performance consisted mostly of still backdrops showing abstract forest scenes or clouds. A slow moonrise accompanied the Nocturne, pretty in its way but quite unnecessary, as this gorgeous piece marks the spot where man and boy Mendelssohn really did have a meeting of the minds.

The costumes by Kathleen Doyle were suitably lyrical and fantastic, and the little bits of set by Cristina Todesco included an ingenious folding Port-a-Bower for Titania’s rendezvous with Bottom.

At the close, the audience did an excellent job of holding candles and applauding, though not at the same time.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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