British tenor Mark Padmore comes to Seattle to sing Benjamin Britten’s “Nocture” in an evening that includes Shakespeare-inspired works by Tchaikovsky, Szymanowski and Mendelssohn.
If music be the food of love, centuries of composers have failed to surfeit the appetite of our collective passion for Shakespeare.
And that’s one secret behind the undying appeal of the Bard: Part of the inexhaustibility of his art is its sheer inexhaustibility. No matter how many times we’ve seen or read “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet,” there’s always some new discovery to make, or room for a performance to move us in ways we didn’t expect.
That explains why composers up to our own time have repeatedly responded to his plays and poetry. Henry Purcell, Joseph Haydn, Giuseppe Verdi and the contemporaries Kaija Saariaho and Thomas Adès are merely a handful of first-rate musical thinkers inspired by Shakespeare.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra: ‘Music and the Bard’
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23, 2 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $21-$121 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.com).
Among the most spellbinding performances in Ludovic Morlot’s tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony was last year’s account of the complete dramatic symphony “Roméo et Juliette” by Hector Berlioz, who wrote in his memoirs that his life-changing discovery of Shakespeare “struck me like a thunderbolt.”
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This week’s Seattle Symphony Shakespeare program includes another composition inspired by the star-crossed lovers: Tchaikovsky’s sweeping, passionate “Overture-Fantasy.”
The program will also include Mendelssohn’s beloved “Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a miraculous product of young genius. Composed when Mendelssohn was only 17, it is still regarded as one of the ideal translations of Shakespearean poetry into music.
But, characteristically, Morlot wanted to include some less-expected and thought-provoking connections. When the opportunity arose to feature tenor soloist Mark Padmore, the conductor began structuring a program around Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” from 1958, a multilayered song cycle for voice and chamber orchestra that culminates in a setting of Sonnet 43 (“when most I wink, then do mine eyes best see”).
“Britten loved everything about light and its gradations,” Morlot said during a recent phone call from London. “His setting of the Shakespeare sonnet is so subtle and relates to this cycle of poems about the night.” That gave him the idea of including Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s choral Third Symphony, written during the First World War. Also known as “The Song of the Night,” the piece calls for tenor and chorus in two movements that set texts by the Persian mystic poet Rumi.
Both the Britten and the Szymanowski highlight strengths that have made Padmore such a celebrated interpreter of the art song. “I don’t have a typically operatic voice, but what I hope I offer is a real connection to the poetry and the meaning of the words,” Padmore said by phone. These will be his first performances at Benaroya Hall, though Padmore sang in Seattle in the 1980s and 1990s as part of early-music groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble.
Padmore’s appearance should appeal to anyone interested in the poetry of singing. Musical America named the English tenor “vocalist of the year” for 2016 in response to his unforgettable interpretations of the Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions (in the stagings by Peter Sellars). If you haven’t experienced Padmore’s Bach, head straightaway to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall to find those performances. They should be on any music lover’s bucket list.
This approach to singing is tailor-made for a composer as sensitive as Britten was to text. His “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ranks among the finest Shakespeare operas.
“Britten always sets great literature,” Padmore said. “There are very few good settings of the Shakespeare sonnets in the repertoire. To capture the syntax in music is spectacularly difficult. The last movement of ‘Nocturne’ is probably the most successful of any sonnet setting that I know. He links the different poems in the whole cycle together with musical phrases so you make connections on a subliminal level.”
Morlot praised Padmore’s timbre and vocal color, adding that “he’s also super-accurate” in his intonation. “It’s hard to combine all of these things with this kind of poetic delivery … I feel privileged he is making the time to perform with us.”