Classical Notes: Okanagan Symphony delivers best of the Bard

OSO's Shakespeare in Love concert featured Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

Like so many great composers, Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy.  He started piano lessons at age six, but his parents were modest and didn’t promote his talent.

Nevertheless, his first public concert was at age nine, and his parents hired private orchestras for performing his work at home.

For these concerts he wrote string symphonies, and his first published work was at the age of 13. He was particularly well received in Britain, and became one of the most popular composers of the Romantic era.

After reading a German translation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was 16, he decided to compose the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture (Opus 21) as a stand-alone concert piece.

Famous for instrumental effects (fairy feet at the beginning, and the repetitive “ee-yaw” of Bottom after his donkey transformation), it’s been described by George Grove as “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.”

The premiere was less than a year later, for which the boy travelled 80 miles through a raging snowstorm.

Sixteen years then passed before he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Incidental Music (Opus 61). By then Mendelssohn was the music director of the King’s Academy of the Arts in Leipzig, and the king of Prussia commissioned him to write music for the play.

It was in 14 movements, including the existing overture.

Here, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, a full performance of this was the centerpiece of the Okanagan Symphony’s concert Shakespeare in Love, Sunday at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre.

Musical director Rosemary Thomson followed the new tradition of weaving excerpts from Shakespeare’s text into the performance. The first recording to incorporate this was by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1992 for Deutsche Grammophon. And the actress reciting excerpts was none other than Judi Dench.

The latest version, commissioned by the Calgary Philharmonic, featured Maureen Thomas, acting all the major characters in a masterful compression of the play. Also performing alongside the orchestra were sopranos Carmen Harris and Mia Harris and the Kelowna Secondary Ladies’ Chamber Choir.

Consistent with Shakespeare productions at the Stratford theatre, the concert started in the theatre lobby with the first of Louis Applebaum’s Three Stratford Fanfares for Brass and Percussion, to warn the audience to take their seats.

The second was in the balcony, and the third was on stage.

For the middle piece, the orchestra was joined by the Okanagan Symphony Youth Orchestra (co-directed by Dennis Colpitts) for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

With more than 100 musicians on stage, this was a truly powerful experience.

The overture is based on three elements of the story.  The first – a foreboding of doom – introduces Friar Laurence, the priest who is Romeo’s confidant. Second is the edgy theme of the warring Capulets and Montagues, leading to the sword fight. The third is the love theme, passionate yet delicate, with that constant hint of danger in the timpani.

In closing, with the tragedy of the double death, it completes (in my opinion) the most perfect piece of music imaginable.

Jim Elderton is a classical music lover who reviews the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra season for The Morning Star.