Shakespeare Forms the Spine of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program

United StatesUnited States Delius, Elgar, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky: Greg Vinkler, Jürgen Hooper (actors), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, IL. 14.1.2012 (JLZ)

Delius: The Walk in the Paradise Garden
Readings from Shakespeare: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
Elgar: Falstaff, Op. 68
Rimsky-Korsakov: Musical Pictures from “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya”:
“Introduction: In Praise of the Wilderness”
“Fevroniya’s Wedding Procession”
“The Battle of Kerzhenets”
“The Blessed Death of Fevroniya – The Road to the Invisible City”
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet

In this ambitious program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder led music inspired by Shakespeare’s dramas, featuring Elgar’s Falstaff. Elder addressed the audience and, in quoting part of the composer’s 1913 essay on the piece, invoked two actors from Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Greg Vinkler and Jürgen Hooper (as Falstaff and Prince Hall/Henry V, respectively) to read from the scenes to which Elgar refers. Elder brought out myriad details (enhanced by the use of projected surtitles) and rearranged the orchestra so that first and second violins were across the stage from each other, with cellos and violas between. This was especially effective in the final elegiac section depicting the aging Falstaff, whose death comes with a final, pizzicato gesture in the strings.

Two pieces based on Romeo and Juliet framed the program, starting with the orchestral interlude from Delius’s opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, the libretto based on the 1856 novella Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe by the Swiss author Gottfried Keller. Elder gave a warm, rich interpretation of this evocative score, bringing out Delius’s deft orchestration. A late addition to Delius’s opera, the interlude stands well on its own, and parallels the other single-movement interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, Tchaikovsky’s concert overture Romeo and Juliet, which ended the evening. As familiar as the latter may be from recordings and broadcasts, a performance like this makes the score sound new. Elder’s attention to nuance and detail paid off handsomely, such as in his voicing of chordal passages so that the middle lines could be heard. The famous “love theme” can sometimes seem like a caricature when taken out of context, but not here, with lush strings and discreet horn timbres. In a similar way, the well-articulated rhythms of the “fight music” brought welcome clarity.

One selection stood out for its lack of overt Shakespeare connections, the rarely performed “pictures” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Invisible City of Kitezh (1904), and Elder gave them a fine reading. While set pieces like the “Procession” are necessarily repetitive because of their function in moving the story along, Elder kept things interesting by varying dynamics, articulations and other details throughout. The use of balalaikas in the second and final movements was perhaps more apparent visually than aurally, but it reminded the audience of the work’s Russian source.

Unfortunately the evening was marred – not by a single coughing bout, as the local press reported about Thursday night’s concert, but rather by a retinue of ailing patrons, whose coughs competed with Elder on the podium during the first part of Falstaff. Additionally, another patron’s cell phone went off for an extended time during the latter part of the Rimsky-Korsakov suite. While coughing is sometimes understandable, cell phones are not, especially with the clear and sometimes witty messages the CSO uses at the opening of each concert. Patrons, please, it’s about the music: let this world-class orchestra be heard without interruption.

James L. Zychowicz