Devin Patrick Hughes had some tough choices to make.
The conductor of the Boulder Symphony wanted to do a concert celebrating music inspired by Shakespeare, but there is so much to choose from. How to choose just one concert’s worth?
In the end he settled on two familiar 19th-century scores — Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture — and one new work, a setting of Sonnet 54 commissioned from CU graduate Elizabeth Comninellis. The three works make up the program for “Shakespeare’s Potion,” to be performed Saturday, Nov. 18.
“We didn’t want to do a five-hour academy,” Hughes says, laughing. “We were trying to look at masterpieces, music that was monumental in highlighting Shakespeare as a storyteller.”
Both the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky scores marked important milestones in the composers’ careers. Mendelssohn wrote the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was 17. It was not his first great work — he had written his Octet for Strings at 16 — but it was performed a year later at his first public performance. That concert launched his career, and established the Overture in the orchestral repertoire.
The Overture was so popular that 17 years later King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia asked Mendelssohn to write music to accompany a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He wrote orchestral interludes, choruses, songs, and music to accompany spoken texts, including the famous Wedding March.
The music of both the Overture and the later incidental pieces all flow from Shakespeare’s words and capture the fleeting, magical quality of the play with its elves and transformations. “It’s amazing how even in that two-decade span, his style did not change,” Hughes says. “It’s a lot of fun for the musicians, and I think the audience is going to really enjoy it, too.”
Tchaikovsky was 30 but had not yet received recognition as a composer when Romeo and Juliet was first performed in 1870. Like Mendelssohn’s Overture, is was the first piece to gain acclaim for the composer.
“It’s an amazing piece of music,” Hughes says. “It has one of the greatest love melodies ever heard, but if we don’t listen to the whole piece, we forget that it ends in tragedy. I think Tchaikovsky’s ability to fill out this drama at such a young age foreshadows his great dramatic symphonic writing, and of course all of his operas.”
The history of the score is somewhat convoluted. The subject was suggested to Tchaikovsky by Mily Balakirev, who headed a group of young Russian composers known as “The Mighty Handful.” Balakirev liked to tell other composers, including Tchaikovsky, how to write “Russian” music. Tchaikovsky completed Romeo and Juliet with Balakirev’s input, but later he went back and revised it to make it more his own work.
Hughes and the symphony performed another piece by Comninellis, the premiere of her As Lightening Flashes last spring. “She did such a great job with it, and the audience really loved it,” Hughes says. “We wanted to offer her [a place] in an all-Shakespeare concert.”
To find a text, Comninellis first looked at the plays, but didn’t find anything she could boil down to a single short piece. “Then I started looking at the sonnets, and I read every single one,” she says. “I didn’t want to pick one that had already been set to music many times, and this one (No. 54) was the one that spoke to me the most.”
The poem compares the lasting beauty of a rose with the more superficial and passing beauty of the canker bloom, a type of wild rose. “The sonnet is about virtue and lasting beauty,” Comninellis says. “And I thought that was a really beautiful concept.
“I’ve used the words as a stimulus for everything that happens, harmonically and rhythmically. It’s very text driven. You’ll hear a shift to a darker or lighter harmonic feel or a faster or slower harmonic feel based on what the words are talking about.”
A singer herself, Comninellis asked about the possibility of singing her piece with the orchestra. “I sort of nervously emailed Devin, and he is really excited about it,” she says.
This concert, like all that Hughes does with the Boulder Symphony, fits into the orchestra’s individual identity. “Our mission is to be an orchestra for the community,” Hughes says.
“It’s about the magic of this large body of musicians who come together. The magic of that harmony, of that cooperation, of that community is something that we need today.”
On the Bill: Shakespeare’s Potion. Boulder Symphony and Chorus, Devin Patrick Hughes, conductor. 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, First Presbyterian Church, 1820 15th St., Boulder. Tickets: 720-383-1610