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Composers inspired by Shakespeare at BAM

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Explaining how the theme for the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra’s soon-to-be-concluded season originated, artistic advisor Evans Mirageas says it came down to one fundamental concept.

"It was really very simple. We asked ourselves, ’What are the different things that generate great music that touches people very deeply?’" Mirageas told GO Brooklyn. The current season’s concerts, under the rubric "Transforma­tions: The Healing Power of Music," ends with a program titled "The Power of Shakespeare," May 9 and May 10 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The season’s opening concert, Osvaldo Golijov’s musical setting of "The Passion according to St. Mark," displayed the power of music based on scripture.

"We wanted a secular counterpart to the power of scripture set to music ... and hands down that’s Shakespeare, who has given rise to more music than any other writer. These were the two pendants of our season, beginning with the sacred and ending with the secular."

Of course, programming an evening of music based on Shakespeare is difficult simply because of the volume of such works.

"It became a process of winnowing down from an enormous body of possibilit­ies," said Mirageas. "We wanted to show how Shakespeare has been used by composers through literal adaptations, or inspirations, works that don’t have a word of Shakespeare in them."

For these concerts, both types of works were chosen: British composer George Benjamin’s "Sometime Voices," a 1996 vocal work based on a speech by Caliban in "The Tempest"; German Hans Werner Henze’s voiceless Eighth Symphony (1993), inspired by "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"; and the final act of Giuseppe Verdi’s last (and greatest) opera, "Falstaff" (1893).

"[Brooklyn Philharmonic Music Director] Robert [Spano] heard ’Sometime Voices’ at Tanglewood some summers back and remembered how powerful and beautiful it is," Mirageas says. Scored for chorus, baritone (Nmon Ford sings at these performances) and orchestra, Benjamin’s 12-minute work is immediately enticing, Mirageas said.

"I wish we could send a sound truck through the streets of Brooklyn blaring the music because we’d probably get more people to come and hear it," he emphasized.

The 76-year-old Henze’s Eighth Symphony, like "Sometime Voices," is a New York premiere; the greatest living German composer has proven his mettle in many genres, from operas to chamber music, but it is his ongoing series of symphonies that will be his lasting legacy. (His 10th symphony will be heard at Carnegie Hall next season.)

"The Boston Symphony commissioned his Eighth Symphony," said Mirageas, who was there in ’93, along with Spano, then an assistant conductor. "Henze himself called me and asked, ’What else is on the program?’ I told him it was Mendelssohn’s ’Midsummer Night’s Dream’ music, and he said, ’Perfect - I’ll create a symphony based on ’Midsummer Night’s Dream’ - not Mendelssohn but Shakespeare.’

"And he did! It’s a three-movement work, about 25 minutes in length, that brings forth the spirit of both Shakespeare and Mendelssohn," said Mirageas.

The search didn’t last long for a work on the second half of the program that, although based on Shakespeare, could hold its own.

"Verdi was a big lover of Shakespeare," Mirageas said. "He contemplated doing an opera based on ’King Lear,’ wrote an operatic ’Macbeth’ (1847), then at the end of his life returned to Shakespeare for his last operas, ’Otello’ (1887) and ’Falstaff.’

"’Otello’ is straightforward Shakespeare translated into Italian, but for ’Falstaff,’ he and librettist Arrigo Boito compressed ’Henry IV, Part I’ and ’The Merry Wives of Windsor’ because they wanted to bring Falstaff to the fore. He’s a lovable character with which you can build a divine comic opera, a faithful translation of Shakespeare but one that stands alone."

Casting Falstaff, one of the glories of the baritone repertory, was a no-brainer.

"Sir Thomas Allen has never gotten around to singing Falstaff, but when he agreed to sing in our current ’Cosi fan tutte,’ we asked him to be our Falstaff as well," Mirageas said. "Because Robert [Spano] is such a rising star in the conducting world, lots of stars want to work with him, and because we are willing to take risks, established singers like to try out new things in Brooklyn."

So do audiences, according to Mirageas.

"Our audiences have developed a lot of trust in Robert," he said. "They know that he believes in the music he plays, and that’s enough for them."

 

The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs Benjamin, Henze and Verdi at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, May 9 and 10 at 8 pm. A pre-concert discussion with artistic advisor Evans Mirageas will be held both evenings, at 7 pm, at the Brooklyn Music School, 126 St. Felix St. Tickets, $20-$55, are available by logging on to www.brooklynphilharmonic.org. For more information, call (718) 622-5555.

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