Anyone who doubts the popularity of classical music should have tried to get a seat at the last of three concerts by the Oratorio Chorale at the Bowdoin College Chapel on Sunday. Management stuffed folding chairs into the chapel to the limits set by the fire marshal.
Those who got seats were not disappointed. The concert, celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with music and scenes from his plays, was the finest performance I have heard from the chorale, now celebrating its own 40th anniversary.
The work of the chorus, under director Emily Isaacson, was enhanced by good and great performances from the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble, soprano Mary Sullivan and accompanist Derek Herzer, who looks astonishingly like the young Mendelssohn.
The program began with action as members of the female chorus, portraying the witches from “Macbeth,” writhed and gestured their way into the chapel to the music of Verdi’s Witches’ Chorus. The effect was arresting, as was the music.
The comic turns that followed, from “Twelfth Night” and “Cymbeline,” were entertaining but served primarily as backdrops for good modern arrangements of “O Mistress Mine,” contrasting with versions of “Hark, Hark the Lark” by Benjamin Cooke (1734-93) and contemporary composer Matthew Harris.
Settings of “Orpheus with His Lute,” by William Schuman (1910-92) and Lord Mornington (1735-81), framed the tragic tale of Queen Katherine in “Henry VIII,” effectively portrayed by Karen Ball as Katherine, Michael Howard as Henry VIII and Mike Levine as Cardinal Wolsey.
The emotional and musical level of the program was ramped up a notch by the appearance of Sullivan in a striking rendition of “Juliet’s Waltz” from Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” followed by Mary Fraser, as Juliet, delivering the “Wherefore art thou Romeo” speech.
Sullivan’s version of “Piangea cantando” from Verdi’s “Otello” was heart-rending as a coda to the tragic conversation of Desdemona (Karen Ball) with her maid Emilia (Mary Fraser). The audience seemed too deeply moved to applaud.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ settings for “The Tempest” were a revelation, vying with Debussy for the finest musical portrait of a sunken cathedral, while his galloping “Over Hill, Over Dale” for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was totally uncharacteristic – not necessarily a bad thing.
Benjamin Britten’s “Come Now a Roundel” for the same play showed his genius at writing for the voice, fully revealed by Sullivan’s crystal-clear and perfectly pitched interpretation of this difficult score.
By far the high point of the afternoon, however, was the combination of Sullivan’s powerful voice with sopranos Jennifer Bradeen and Carly Anderson in Mendelssohn’s “Come Now a Roundel and a Fairy Song.” The effect was simply ravishing.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at: