United Kingdom Arne & Beamish – Shakespeare Odes: Sam West (actor), Ex Cathedra, soloists and instrumentalists, Ex Cathedra Academy of Vocal Music, local primary school children and The City Musick / Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). Milton Court, London. 12.5.2016. (JPr)
Arne (arr. Horsewood), The Garrick Ode
Beamish, A Shakespeare Masque
Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary celebrations are in full swing but have mostly passed me by until this. However, another day, another ‘staged concert’ and after Budapest Festival Orchestra’s The Magic Flute a couple of days earlier which I labelled a quixotic mess (review), came what I can only describe as another curious quixotic mess.
I don’t want to prolong this review by debating at length whether Shakespeare was the real author of the plays but since there are no original manuscripts with his fingerprints on them and the best he could leave Anne Hathaway in his will was his ‘second best bed’ then I think it is still open to doubt. The best many of his supporters have to offer is to suggest doubters cannot believe a Warwickshire grammar school boy from a modest background could contribute so much to English literature. Yes, this could happen in 2016 but 400 years ago possibly not, unless he was an innate genius like Mozart, but – apart from the works themselves – there is no evidence I have seen that this was the case.
In this concert little bar a few well-known quotations was by Shakespeare anyway, so all this is moot. The well-respected Birmingham-based choir Ex Cathedra under its director, Jeffery Skidmore, has exhumed the Ode to Shakespeare, written for the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 by the great eighteenth-century actor David Garrick, one of the first to popularise the now-familiar canon. Originally titled An Ode upon Dedicating a building and Erecting a Statue, to Shakespeare, at Stratford Upon Avon it was written by Garrick as a recitative to be declaimed by himself over string accompaniment with sung airs and choruses. Garrick’s model was William Havard’s Ode to the Memory of Shakespeare and the music was by Thomas Arne, the composer of Rule Britannia. The language is of-its-time and difficult to follow, very florid and too-effusive and the spoken text was given a very actorly performance of lines such as ‘Tis he!, tis he! – that demi-god! Who Avon’s flow’ry margin trod’ by Samuel West dressed as Garrick in powdered wig and breeches and often addressing a statue of Shakespeare to the side of the platform.
Not much of Arne’s score for The Garrick Ode has survived but what there is has been rearranged by Adrian Horsewood with new music for two missing choruses commissioned from the composer Sally Beamish. Arne’s music was nothing particularly memorable but is probably typical of the eighteenth century. With everyone wearing ruffs, Ex Cathedra, featuring singers as well as three baroque musicians (violin, bass viol and harpsicord) did the best they could with what they had. The best singing was from Jeremy Budd – amusingly channelling Falstaff – Angela Hicks, and a duet from Katie Tretheway and Martha McLorinan. There was a certain quaint charm to the whole performance.
After the interval came the brand-new A Shakespeare Masque, with a text (seven poems) by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy performed as a series of songs and dances, composed by Sally Beamish. Skidmore’s inspiration in commissioning this was to find a community work to rival Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. Good luck getting this new work as regularly performed as Britten’s. Duffy’s poems reflect how Shakespeare has entered the English language and – even if subliminally – become part of our collective consciousness as well as possibly musing on how much we know or think we know about him. Duffy’s language must be totally incomprehensible to those it appears partly aimed at but I cannot praise highly enough the obvious commitment of all the endearing primary school children involved (from Manorfield, Arnhem Wharf and John Scurr schools). It was a bit like a pageant, with costumes and choreography (including elements of Dalcroze), adult singers and colourfully dressed young ones, …plus an audience singalong! There was a named director, James Farrell; that the young children were all at sea moving about was understandable but I could not understand why everything else seemed under-rehearsed.
There was a piquant sound to much of Sally Beamish’s music which strove to remind the ear of what we might have heard in days of yore whilst alluding to modern twenty-first century compositional sensibilities where no two notes that should go together ever seem to. The musicians of The City Musick played with studied concentration for Jeffrey Skidmore who – like Maestro Fischer at the Festival Hall two days before – looked pleased with himself, as indeed he should because this for good or bad was his idea.
The best bits were the reflective moments where Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in the costumes of their characters sang direct to the audience. As the Bard Greg Skidmore’s opening lines were ‘By force I was fired by fancy to write’ and Katie Trethewey’s Hathaway had a deeply affecting sonnet about that infamous bed and whether it was bequeathed to her out of love or possibly distain, something that appears to be debated more hotly than other more important Shakespearean matters.
For more about Ex Cathedra visit www.excathedra.co.uk.