Review: The Oratorio Chorale stages a spectacle

Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Culture

by Gina Hamilton

This was not your father's choral concert...

Emily Isaacson, the Oratorio Chorale's new director, staged (and there is no other word for it) a performance called "Shakespeare in Concert", using music and lyrics that were performed during Shakespeare's plays and later, plays and operas based on works of Shakespeare.  Not much is known about the actual music that was played during the plays, with one potential exception.  That is Thomas Morley's composition, "O, Mistress Mine", which is thought to have been performed during Twelfth Night.

However, Shakespeare's words survive, and that most of the Renaissance compositions were never recorded hasn't stopped composers to this day from taking the words of the Bard and adding their own music to them.  The concert featured works of Verdi, Matthew Harris, Judith Lang Zaimont, Benjamin Cooke, William Schuman, Lord Mornington, Charles-Francois Gounod, Steven Sametz, Thomas Augustine Arne, Thomas Morley, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Benjamin Britten, Fritz Mendelssohn, and Amy Beach.

Joining the choir were members of the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble, who read scenes in between the musical offerings.  The small ensemble added tiny touches to a basic black outfit - a red shawl here, a simple diadem there, a pair of fairy wings or a Puck nose. The ensemble consisted of Michael Howard, Mike Levine, Mary Frazer, and Karen Ball.

The choir also got into the act - from the female members making an incredible entrance, covered in black shawls, singing Verdi's Witches' Chorus, to the choir returning to the nave of the Bowdoin Chapel to sing a bright version of Morley's "It was a Lover and his Lass".

Performed to a packed house, with some latecomers left standing, with the sun streaming in through the high stained glass windows, it was possible to experience what audiences in Shakespeare's day may have experienced - sans the smells and the animals and the colorful props and costuming - at the Globe Theatre. 

A lecture by Mary Hunter, professor of Music at Bowdoin, before the performance, put the music we were about to hear in context. 

And the excellent soprano Mary Sullivan returned to sing several of the pieces, including "Je veux vivre" (by Charles-Francois Goumod) for Romeo and Juliet, "Piangea cantando" (from Verdi's Otello), and two versions of "Come now a roundel" (by Benjamin Britten and Felix Mendelsohn) from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  She was occasionally joined by a few sopranos from the chorale - Jennifer Braden and Carly Anderson.  Other members were highlighted in "Hand in Hand with Fairy Grace", Braden and Anderson, and Kim Compareetto, Anja Forche,Vivien Gray, Ruby Shields-Morse, Jim Parmentier, Andy Pitteroff, and John Todd.

The music was the Oratorio Chorale in very fine voice, and also a rollicking good time. And not only the audience seemed to be having fun; the Chorale also was having fun with this, and that's half the battle.

One minor complaint, especially for our older bones and bifocals - it was difficult to see and focus on everything from our position midway through the chapel. We understand the desire to give the "Globe" experience, but please, in the future, take pity on those of us who don't have the range of movement we used to have.

In every other respect, the performance was charming and sparkling.  We look forward to the next performance, of the Brahms Requiem, in early June.

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