Shakespeare in Music
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.~ The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1
If you’re like me, studying Shakespeare back in school was more of a grind than a joy, but these days it’s a completely different story. Somewhere along the way I’ve gained an awareness of how his plays and sonnets provide timeless insights into life and love. I’m now amazed by the richness and artistry of his language and I seek out chances to immerse myself in his work.
It’s a good time for Shakespeare. This year marks the 400th anniversary of his death (at age 52), and from the number and variety of celebrations taking place around the world, it seems that he has never been more popular.
One upcoming event features music inspired by Shakespeare. On Saturday, May 21st, the Westminster Community Orchestra performs “Shakespeare in Music” in Princeton. The evening includes excerpts from two all-time concert favorites, Mendelssohn’s “Overture and Fairy Song” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the love scene from Berlioz’s “Roméo et Juliette.Verdi’s prelude to “Macbeth”and an excerpt from Smetana’s “Richard III”are also on the program.
“I did not shy away from responses to the tragic reflections of Shakespeare,” remarks conductor Ruth Ochs, who arranged the program. “I felt we owed it to Shakespeare to show how rich his output was, and how diverse the musical responses have been throughout history.”
Ruth Ochs is a music scholar pursuing her PhD at Princeton University, where she is a lecturer in the Department of Music. She’s also the music director of the Princeton University Sinfonia, the conductor of a youth orchestra that joins students from the Princeton Charter School and the Westminster Conservatory of Music, and she’s the conductor of the Westminster Community Orchestra.
“Music is a lifelong endeavor and it’s amazing to have different groups for musicians from different stages,” says Ochs. “The Westminster Conservatory, which is the community school of the Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University, serves as a platform for doing this.”
In fact, most of the members of the Westminster Community Orchestra have day jobs, yet these lawyers, nurses, physicists, music teachers, homemakers, and psychologists are all highly trained musicians who practice together weekly and give a full season of performances.
The Westminster Community Orchestra’s presentation of “Shakespeare in Music” is the finale of their 29th season. As with many of their concerts, the program features younger ensembles, faculty members from the Conservatory, and young and upcoming soloists. A special highlight of the May 21st concert are the world premieres of three settings of Shakespeare sonnets for voice and orchestra by Westminster Conservatory alumna, composer Christine Elise Chen.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (18), “Is it thy will thy image should keep open / My heavy eyelids to the weary night?” (61) and “O me! What eyes hath love put in my head, / Which have no correspondence with true sight?” (148) are the sonnets that Chen has interpreted for voice and orchestra.
Conductor Ochs is excited to present these new compositions as they are so rewarding to play. “Shakespeare is able to encompass the complexity of love and the diverse shadows that love casts,” she says, “and music is able to simulate that emotional diversity and richness.”
The sonnets will be sung by soprano Katherine Sundstrom, who graduated from Wellesley College with composer Christine Elise Chen.
“I will continue setting Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets over the course of my life,” says the composer, “and I only hope Katie will continue singing them as well!”
Chen started her musical education at the Conservatory, where she sang in the Westminster Children’s Choir and studied with many of the faculty. She’s now on her way to the Manhattan School of Music, where she starts her master’s in composition this fall.
“Shakespeare in Music” also features soprano Danielle Sinclair and mezzo-soprano Alexis Peart singing the Mendelssohn. Peart recently won the Conservatory’s concerto competition and this fall will be entering the Easton School of Music to study vocal performance. Rounding out the evening are Shakespearean monologues directed and performed by Princeton actor Todd Reichart.
As Ochs points out, the community of Princeton is musically very rich. Amidst that plenty, the Westminster Community Orchestra has a special niche: “it’s so wonderful to share our accomplishments as members of our community coming together to perform.”
The Westminster Community Orchestra’s performance of “Shakespeare in Music” takes place 8 pm on Saturday, May 21st at the Princeton Meadow Church and Event Center. The program consists of orchestral reflections of Shakespeare’s work, including the world premieres of three settings of Shakespeare sonnets for voice and orchestra. For more information, visit the website of the Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University.