The man that hath no music in himself…
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.
— The Merchant of Venice, (5.1. 91-3)
William Shakespeare’s drama and poetry resonate far beyond the theater. Music plays a vital role in his plays and his works continue to inspire compositions in all genres of music, from song to symphony to sampling.
So when two musical ensembles whose genres are aural opposites decided to collaborate, Shakespeare offered intriguing possibilities for both groups.
“It turned out that the most interesting subject was Shakespeare’s texts,” says Ixi Chen, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra clarinetist and artistic director of the innovative ensemble concert:nova. concert:nova teams up with the acclaimed music group Catacoustic Consort to present A Common Thread, a program of works performed in Shakespeare’s plays or inspired by them.
Known for its exciting collaborative ventures, concert:nova’s members explore the spectrum of classical music, often performing rarely heard works and contemporary pieces in collaboration with visual and performing artists.
Catacoustic Consort focuses on what is termed “early music,” dating from the Renaissance through the Baroque periods, covering the late 15th through the 18th centuries. In the 12 years since founding the group, Artistic Director Annalisa Pappano, herself a virtuoso performer of the viola da gamba and lirone, has generated renewed interest in hearing period instruments and the more intimate style of performances.
Pappano credits Shakespeare with turning her on to the viola da gamba.
“As a teenager, I took a summer camp class on Shakespeare and music and I loved the music — it was very alive,” she says. “Later on, I performed for several summers with the Utah Shakespeare Festival and had an absolute blast.”
Chen got her start with Shakespeare as an actress in school productions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I love the rhythm of the text, the lilt and flow of the dialogue, and how Shakespeare still inspires artists to this day,” she says.
Both groups were encouraged to collaborate by friends and supporters, but according to Annalisa Pappano, “Our friendship brought this together.” But even that relationship couldn’t prevent the inherent challenges in presenting two very different musical ensembles.
“It’s very difficult to have modern instruments and early instruments play together,” explains Chen.
“But we decided that we would play to our strengths and present music from different eras.”
A consummate master of the entertainment business, Shakespeare knew that his audiences expected songs and incidental music as part of the stage presentation and he obliged. There are more than 100 song texts or references to songs throughout the canon, but even if there were none, Shakespeare’s works have still inspired composers for more than 300 years.
“We’re doing songs and instrumental music that was actually performed in Shakespeare’s plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest,” says Pappano. The composers include Thomas Morley, John Dowland, “And, of course, Anonymous!” she says.
There’s an additional challenge with this music: “You only have the tune and the words. You have to make an arrangement that’s interesting for the musicians and your audience,” says Pappano.
Pappano will play the treble viola da gamba, a predecessor of the modern violin. She will be joined by bass viol player David Morris; two lutenists, Dave Walker and Brian Kay; and soprano Youngmi Kim.
“We decided on two lutes for a fuller, richer sound. Dave Walker has played with us before and Brian Kay is a rising superstar in the lute world,” says Pappano, adding that, “There’s a real difference in the sound world we produce and different ways of listening.”
Kim will also be featured in concert:nova’s segments, performing songs by Amy Beach, Ned Rorem, Henry Rowley Bishop, Igor Stravinsky and incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing by Erich Korngold.
The second half of the performance is dedicated to The Tempest, with Paul Marovec’s “Tempest Fantasy,” which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for composition, interspersed with dramatic readings from the play itself.
“ ‘Tempest Fantasy’ is a five-movement mood sketch of three of the play’s main characters — Prospero, Ariel and Caliban, plus two instrumental interludes,” Chen says. “Marovec is someone who creates beauty in music. His language is modern and definitely accessible. And there are lots of high b’s for the clarinet!”
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company actress Jennifer Joplin performs segments from The Tempest. “This is based on an outreach version she’s done and we’re working with her on placement of the text and the flow of the program,” says Chen.
Joplin leads off the program with one of Shakespeare’s best-known statements: “If music be the food of love, play on,” from Twelfth Night, followed by Catacoustic’s performance of music from the play.
Shakespeare is the common thread, but Pappano and Chen had to dig deep to find texts in both old and more contemporary settings. “It turned out that there were only a handful of songs that used the same texts,” says Chen. “The songs by Amy Beach offer an exact illustration of how words were used then and now.”
concert:nova finds venues that are as much a part of the event as the music, and the Mercantile Library offers an ideal setting: a unique literary collection in a comfortable, intimate space that can accommodate up to 170 seats. Both Chen and Pappano have performed at the Mercantile and call it “cozy and welcoming.” Being surrounded by the written word can only heighten the experience, and the Mercantile will have a display of Shakespeare volumes available in its collection prior to the concert.
Pappano hopes audiences will be excited about being in two very different sound worlds. “You’ll hear the more intimate sounds of lute and gambas, then a totally different acoustic experience.”
Just another indication that Shakespeare is for the ages.
Catacoustic Consort and concert:nova present A COMMON THREAD Sunday and Monday at the Mercantile Library downtown. Tickets: cncatacoustic.eventbrite.com.