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Soliloquy and song from the 'Sceptered Isle'

Chamber Orchestra of Sarasota, Urbanite Theatre double-team Shakespeare in 'British Night'

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  • | 4:20 a.m. February 5, 2020
Chamber Orchestra of Sarasota Music Director Robert Vodnoy has long had a fascination in the number of composers who've drawn inspiration from Shakespeare.
Chamber Orchestra of Sarasota Music Director Robert Vodnoy has long had a fascination in the number of composers who've drawn inspiration from Shakespeare.
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All the world's a stage — at least it is around here this time of year. The problem is, you  agree you want to go out, but one of you wants to see some theater, and the other is in the mood for music. You can't think of a compromise, and before you know it you’re on the couch again binge-watching “The Crown.”

That’s a real sticky wicket, that is. But we shan’t have a bit of it this week, as the Chamber Orchestra of Sarasota and Urbanite Theatre are putting their respective talents together for a program to satisfy any appetite for Anglophilic entertainment.

“British Night,” Tuesday at Church of the Redeemer, will feature music by English composers from the Baroque to the present, with much of the program devote to music inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare.

“I have been fascinated by the relationship between music and Shakespeare for my entire professional career,” says Chamber Orchestra of Sarasota music director Robert Vodnoy. “For several years, I taught a graduate course at Valparaiso University about the relationship between Shakespeare plays and the operas, ballets, concert works and musical theater they inspired.”

With America going through one of its occasional infatuations with all things British, both on TV and in the tabloid drama of the royal family, “I thought this was a good time to explore the idea in a concert.”

In this program, the Shakespeare/music relationship will come to full fruition, as actors from Urbanite Theatre will perform Shakespearean monologues between the musical selections.

Urbanite Theatre co-Artistic Director Brendan Ragan
Urbanite Theatre co-Artistic Director Brendan Ragan

The concept of presenting Shakespeare’s words side-by-side with the music it inspired sounded good to Urbanite Theatre co-Artistic Director Brendan Ragan.

“It's certainly not a revolutionary idea to put spoken text with music,” Ragan says. “But to be presented in such a way where you can bounce back and forth between hearing classical text and hearing these classical arrangements is going to be a unique experience.”

The program will include works by seven composers, six of whom: Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, Gustav Holst, Hubert Parry, Edward Elgar, and William Walton are often cited as being among England’s greatest composers. The seventh composer on the program will be the Russian composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, who was educated in England and wrote several Shakespeare-inspired pieces, most notably his “Romeo and Juliet,” considered by many to be the finest example of Shakespeare-Inspired music.

The Shakespearean collaboration will make up the second half of "British Night."

Giles Davies
Giles Davies

The first half will be a more traditional chamber concert format, albeit with a selection of songs chosen to create an atmosphere that’s “eminently British,” Vodnoy said.

Excerpts from Parry’s “An English Suite” open the concert, followed by Holst’s "A Fugal Concerto,” composed in 1923 during an English folk music revival. The closing work on the first half of the concert will be Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings.”

For the second, Shakespearean half, Ragan, along with actors Katie Cross, Giles Davies, Enoch King and Jim Sorensen will deliver monologues from “Hamlet,” “Henry V,” “Julius Caesar,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” alternating with compositions  inspired by those plays.

“I chose the music first,” Vodnoy says. “I knew the pieces that I thought would make a nice program. And then because I knew the plays, I started thinking about what monologues would introduce the music and shed light on the music.”

Jim Sorensen
Jim Sorensen

In Ragan’s opinion, Vodnoy chose well. “These aren't just randomly selected pieces of music and randomly selected piece of text,” Ragan says. “You’ve got these plays that eventually give way to the compositions musically. So to see those two in the same room delivered by professionals is going to be treat.”

The one exception to the selection process came out of  Vodnoy and Ragan agreeing they wanted a woman in the cast, “even though, you know, 90% of characters in Shakespeare are men,” Ragan says.

Katie Cross
Katie Cross

For a monologue, they quickly narrowed it down to Ophelia, from “Hamlet,” a monolog in which she mourns her father’s death. Vodnoy knew the perfect piece to go with it: “Elegy,” something Tchaikovsky wrote for a production of “Hamlet.”

But what about the all-British theme? Well, Vodnoy says, Tchaikovsky was presented an honorary degree from Oxford, so that more or less makes him an honorary Englishman — close enough.

As carefully as the program was planned, it will really be a sum of its individual parts. “We're actually working independently,” Ragan said.

Enoch King
Enoch King

“I'm directing these actors independently on their monologs. The orchestra has also been working on it’s own. We're not going to put it all together until very near the performance, which is going to be sort of exciting.”

Ragan says he’s done shows this way before. What happens is, the performers become spectators. The actors are blown away by the musicians, then they get on stage and the musicians are blown away, and so even though they aren’t technically working together, their performances feed one another, which gives the show not just a sense of cohesion but an exciting energy.

“It’ll be a true mashup," Ragan said. "We’ll trade it back and forth rather than do one piece together, which I think is fun.”

Make that jolly good fun, what?









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