Austin Symphony’s season tagline, “Hear a Great Story,” coalesced in epic narrative fashion during its final concert, “A Shakespearean Evening” at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
The first part of the program was devoted to excerpts from Hector Berlioz’s grand “Romeo and Juliette.” This enormous piece requires richness, clarity and an ability to switch quickly from one dramatic effect to another. Although necessarily abstract, the music nevertheless tells the tale, or parts of it, nimbly and accurately. The orchestra has rightly won praise in the past few years for its ability to produce a full, comprehensive sound, but in this symphonic treatment of William Shakespeare, the quiet, sad and romantic moments were treated with equal mastery. We left for intermission wanting more of the same.
The next piece, however, proved even more epic in nature. William Walton, part of a generation of very British composers, wrote the scores for three Shakespearean films by Laurence Olivier. Later, arranger Christopher Palmer set substantial excerpts from Walton’s score to “Henry V” to portions of the spoken text. This turned into an hour-long celebration of 15th century war, peace and notions about the fleeting qualities of leadership, and nobody romanticizes those subjects like the British, right?
Artistic director Peter Bay’s trump card was Robert Faires, arts journalist, playwright, performer and recent inductee into the Texas Institute of Letters. Over the past few years, Faires has polished a one-actor version of “Henry V,” which he will revive for the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane later this summer. So he came to this concert supremely prepared to shape and deliver every speech, which in this case happily included helpful narration from the playwright’s one-person Chorus.
But would it match Walton’s music? On Saturday, yes it did. Very much so. Members of Chorus Austin and the Austin Children’s Choir added their voices at key intervals to this splendid artistic expedition. (Makes me wonder if something similar could be done with Patrick Doyle’s rousing score to Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 movie version of “Henry V.”)
This kind of evening, with scads of musicians uniting to create a great topography of sound, has become almost expected of the Austin Symphony of late. Is there anything this ensemble cannot accomplish someday?
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