Shakespeare at Symphony Hall

Apr 20, 2016

Seems like everyone has some touchstone when it comes to Shakespeare. The plays are so ubiquitous that it’s really not hard to run into some form, take, interpretation, or re-invention of the most popular ones, like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.

The first experience of Shakespeare I remember was a straightforward production of The Taming of the Shrew in Fort Worth, where I grew up. It wasn’t re-interpretation or set in a different time period or anything. It was as Elizabethan as you could imagine. And I was transfixed. My 14-year-old ears understood, maybe, 20% of what was said. But that 20% was so compelling and brilliant that I immediately knew exactly why the name “Shakespeare” was so important.

Several years later, when Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V came out, it had only been a few years since the release of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, a few years in which I studied the Viet Nam War quite a bit. The way Branagh leveraged Shakespeare to comment on the post-Viet Nam era was utterly brilliant and confirmed the continued relevance of Shakespeare’s works.

Branagh hasn’t always produced such brilliance, but he came close in 1993 with Much Ado About Nothing, a deeply flawed and deeply entertaining film. According to my wife, when she comes home from work and finds me watching that film, she knows I needed to put myself in a better mood….

Of course, another re-invention of Shakespeare comes through in what I think is about as superb a score as any produced in the Twentieth Century: Bernstein’s West Side Story. When the Boston Symphony played a live accompaniment to the film version of that musical a few years ago, both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, the emotional impact, already incredible, was exponentially greater.

Earlier this season, the BSO went several steps further to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In a series of three programs, the orchestra and Music Director Andris Nelsons explored several orchestral interpretations of and reactions to Shakepeare’s works. They were, like just about everything Shakespeare himself wrote, entertaining, thought-provoking, and challenging.

BSO's Midsummer Night's Dream performance by Winslow Townson

  The first of them was built around A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the centerpiece was a staged version using Mendelssohn’s iconic score of incidental music, brilliantly played and acted. But when you listen to it, make sure to also listen to Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 8. It’s Henze, so of course it’s challenging. But it’s also fascinating to hear his responses to the same material as Mendelssohn, but from his own post-war Twentieth Century perspective. Listen here.

The second program, built around Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, was probably the highlight of the three for me, as it included the incredible Barbara Hannigan in an incredible piece of musi: Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you. It’s not often that you hear a piece of new music and know right away that it’s one that will be around forever. But this is one. Listen here.

Finally, the third program was anchored by Tchaikovsky’s take on Romeo and Juliet. It was great: all drama, lyricism, and heartbreak. But the rest of the program was fascinating as well, with rarely-heard pieces by Strauss and Dvorák, and a world premiere of music by George Tsontakis, inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Listen here.

As the world honors four centuries since Shakespeare died, I hope you’ll spend some time with each of these concerts. Then, comment on WCRB’s Facebook page or Twitter feed to let us know what your favorites from the series were.