Classical music and Shakespeare is the perfect combination for an enjoyable evening of culture in the city. On Thursday 18th August, I went along to the Royal Albert Hall to see Prom 44 of the 2016 Prom season. This year marks my third consecutive year of Proms reviewing for Kettle, and each year the diversity of the schedule and the brilliance of the musicians keep me coming back for more.
When I first came across Prom 44 whilst browsing the 2016 schedule, I immediately knew it was the Prom for me this year. As a writer and reader, I’ve always had a deep admiration for the Bard’s work, and the opportunity to see it brought to life through the medium of music was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
The Prom programme was really well devised, carefully structured to create a logical and coherent yet varied offering wading through the masses of music devised to translate Shakespeare’s words into song. The first half of the evening centred on music created for Shakespeare’s works from this side of the pond. After the interval, we hopped across the Atlantic to hear a selection of pieces taken from Shakespeare-influenced American musicals. It was clear to see how much thought and careful consideration had gone into the inclusion of each piece. Well-known pieces familiar to regular Prommers rubbed shoulders with comparatively new pieces, previously unheard at the Proms.
Faster up-tempo numbers would follow full orchestra pieces, interspersed with quieter, more delicate interludes and fantastic solos. This wide variety of content and style really helped to make it a memorable Prom, and a worthy tribute to the work of the Bard. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Shakespeare is both the most-performed playwright for the stage and the most-filmed author for the screen.
Every section was introduced by American-born conductor Keith Lockhart, whose excellent direction prompted an enjoyable and musically precise performance from his orchestra. Each member of the BBC Concert Orchestra is an extremely competent and skilled musician in his or her own right, but together they are able to breathe new life into the music, adapting and shaping the score to really make it their own.
It’s pretty safe to say that William Walton has composed some of the most famous Shakespeare scores of all time. This was recognised by his passionate ‘Prelude’ to Laurence Olivier’s Richard III opening the evening’s performance. Further offerings from Walton followed later on, in the form of an excerpt from his earlier score for the 1936 film version of As You Like It, which consciously contains and almost managed to satirise ‘period’ music; an effort which is certainly in keeping with the overall tone of the original play.
‘Springtime Dance’ from Joby Talbot’s composition for Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet of A Winter’s Tale was a particular highlight. The choppy rhythms and snappy style of playing worked perfectly with the lyricism of the central string melody. The resulting effect was a spectacularly stunning showpiece which really got the audience involved in the performance.
The musical switch for the second half provided a welcome change of pace. With a real sense of showmanship, Lockhart directed the orchestra in renditions of music from three of America’s greatest Shakespeare-based musicals: West Side Story, Kiss Me, Kate and The Boys from Syracuse. This second half was much more energetic than the first. The playing was ambitious and driven, yet skilfully executed. In particular, the flute solo transition in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was very well done.
Selections from Kiss Me, Kate were expertly performed by five singers, building on the atmosphere created by the orchestra. Lockhart’s brief yet stylish waltz with singer Sarah Eyden during ‘Falling in Love with Love’ only added to it further.
It was an excellent decision to end on a selection from The Boys from Syracuse. It’s an underrated and often overlooked show, despite being the first Broadway musical to be based on Shakespeare. The chosen numbers were performed with bucketloads of energy, pizzazz, and a cheeky sense of mischief. Crowd favourite ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ ended the evening’s performance on a high note, leaving the audience humming along in good spirits as they left the Hall.
All in all, I think Mr Shakespeare would have been honoured by the evening’s performance and the showcase of his greatest works through music. After all – it’s not a loaf of bread.
Prom 44 is available to listen on BBC iPlayer for 30 days from the date of broadcast.