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Santa Barbara Symphony’s Renditions of Melodies of Shakespeare Will Grace The Granada

The upcoming pair of concerts by the Santa Barbara Symphony — at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, both in The Granada Theater — bear the title Shakespeare Set to Music

As the title hints, the program reflects three great composers — William Walton, Sergei Prokofiev and Felix Mendelssohn — responding in music to the words of the greatest dramatic poet in the English language, William Shakespeare.

Since it would be kind of perverse to celebrate Shakespeare's language without offering any examples of it, the Symphony, conducted by Music Director Nir Kabaretti, will be collaborating with the Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) to treat audiences to a sprinkling of Shakespeare's verbal magic in the last work performed.

The program consists of the suite from Sir William Walton's score for the 1936 film of As You Like It; the Suite from Prokofiev's 1936 ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 and a suite of Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Opera 21 & 61 (1826 & 1843).

(Walton's score includes an exquisite setting, for counter-tenor, of "Under the Greenwood Tree," and Mendelssohn's music includes a setting of unearthly beauty, of "Ye Spotted Snakes," but the Symphony's credits include neither singers nor chorus, so I guess we will not be hearing either setting at the Granada this weekend.) 

"If music be the food of love, play on!" —​ Twelfth Night, I.i.1

Shakespeare loved music, and musicians have returned the affection ever since. While there is no evidence that either of the Bard's most famous contemporaries, William Byrd or John Dowland, ever tried their hands at setting his numerous songs, there are recordings of several lovely Shakespeare songs by Henry Purcell (1659–95), the greatest English composer of them all, and several fine settings by Thomas Arne (1710–78), as well.

Still, the love affair of composers with the works of Shakespeare burned with a fairly low flame throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and only blazed up with the advent of romanticism.

When Anton Schindler asked Beethoven what his Piano Sonata No. 17 in D-minor, Op. 31, #2 (1802) was all about, Beethoven said, "Read Shakespeare's Tempest." Hence the Sonata has been known as "The Tempest" ever since.

Berlioz had never read Shakespeare, nor knew any English, when he saw an English dramatic company perform Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in Paris, with the beautiful Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, as Ophelia and Juliet, respectively.

Legend had it that the composer left the theater after Romeo and Juliet vowing: "I will marry Juliet, and write my greatest symphony on the play."

In his magnificent Mémoires, Berlioz debunked this as a myth. "I never said it," he wrote, "but I did both." He also wrote the closest thing to a great opera ever adapted from a Shakespeare play: Beatrice and Benedict, based on Much Ado About Nothing.

During the filming of the 1936 As You Like It, Walton met Sir Laurence Olivier and the two became fast friends (not lovers, because Larry didn't swing that way at all, and I've no evidence that Willie did, either).

It was Olivier's first filmed Shakespeare performance, and he had not yet taken up directing. When he later made his own films of Henry VHamlet and Richard III, Walton scored them all. Walton also wrote the music for a production of Macbeth.

Tchaikovsky's dramatic fantasy on Romeo and Juliet has a famous theme in it, but the work disappears once a few bars of Prokofiev's ballet have sounded.

As with the other two composers represented on this program, Prokofiev makes no attempt at period authenticity, even though Peter Warlock and Ottorino Respighi had already been to the archives and spruced up their findings as Capriol Suite and Ancient Dances and Airs.

Since he didn't have to fit Shakespeare's alien syllables into his tunes, Prokofiev freely dealt directly with the soul, if not of the play, certainly of the story, "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

In Prokofiev's version, the doomed lovers enact an archetypal, almost primitive, romance in a pre- (or un-) historic world of warring tribes and intransigent curses, yet their love glows still, as innocent and refined, as gravely attentive, as their Shakespearean originals.

Critics and other purists might insist upon The Rite of Spring or Petrushka as the greatest ballet score of the twentieth century, but as much as I love those works, I vote for Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

After he had produced and conducted the first performance of Bach's Saint Matthew Passion since the composer's death, Mendelssohn remarked, "It is an actor and a young Jew who are restoring to Europe its greatest Christian music."

Listening to A Midsummer Night's Dream, it doesn't seem far-fetched to credit him with a similar resurrection with respect to Shakespeare's plays — for they were written to be played, not read.

The the subject of music as a measure of someone's character, Shakespeare had this to say:

"The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted."

— The Merchant of Venice, V.1

Tickets for these concerts are $28–$133, with special rates for seniors, students and groups. Discounted student tickets are available for $10 with valid student I.D.

Single tickets can be purchased from the Granada Box Office at 805.899.2222 or online from

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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