REVIEW: Chopin, Mendelssohn, Shakespeare – all at festive Tanglewood

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By Friday, Aug 18 Arts & Entertainment
Hilary Scott
At Tanglewood Hans Graf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Felix Mendelssohn's Overture and Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,' in a theatrical adaptation by Bill Barclay. From left, Caleb Mayo as Puck, Kiera Duffy (seated), Karen MacDonald as Titania, and mezzo soprano Abigail Fischer.

Lenox — The program was not billed as “Joke Night,” but it could have been. On the evening of Saturday, August 5, the Shed stage at Tanglewood was the venue for a comedy show the likes of which hadn’t been seen there since 2014, when Bramwell Tovey led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a production of Leonard Bernstein’s impossibly witty Candide. On August 5, conductor Hans Graf and the BSO presented Bill Barclay’s theatrical adaptation of Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Jokes flew from the stage like fleet-footed forest fairies, and one zinger in particular brought down the house.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Photo: Hilary Scott

But first on the program was Garrick Ohlsson performing Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. This was smart programming, because Mr. Ohlsson had performed Chopin’s first concerto the night before. This gave listeners an opportunity to hear the same pianist perform both concertos — back to back — on successive nights. This made for easy comparison of the two pieces. And the verdict? Chopin’s second concerto is superior to the first in just about all respects, which explains why it is by far the more popular of the two. (Dedicated Chopin fans love them both, simply because they both sound unmistakably like Chopin.)

It’s not so easy, though, to describe Ohlsson’s performances in critical terms, because if he ever falls short of perfection, he’s probably the only one who knows it. Still, personal tastes vary, and some listeners want to hear Chopin’s second piano concerto performed in a way that’s somehow different from Ohlsson’s approach. For example, after Ohlsson left the stage for the last time on Saturday, someone sitting in the Shed’s section six complained that the concerto’s first movement fell short of their requirements. And, of course, various conductors have their own ideas about how the piece ought to be performed. What everyone seems to agree on, though, is that Ohlsson’s note-perfect performances have a great deal more to recommend them than technical precision. A local concert pianist told The Edge, “Nowadays not missing a single note in any concerto is just the lowest entry bar.” Interpretation is always paramount, and that’s where Ohlsson is peerless. (In 1970 Mr. Ohlsson became the first American to win first prize in the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition. See video below).


Thus, his performances on Friday and Saturday were definitive and utterly satisfying. Until they ended. On both nights, the crowd demanded more, and Ohlsson graciously obliged.

*  *  *  *  *

Bill Barclay’s theatrical adaptation of Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ is no minor production: There were six cast members in full costume, sets, props, projected images, singers from the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and one Boston Symphony Orchestra, Hans Graf conducting. Plus an offstage technical crew. And a mask maker.

Kiera Duffy, Caleb Mayo and Abigail Fischer

Kiera Duffy, Caleb Mayo and Abigail Fischer in Bill Barclay’s adaptation of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Photo: Hilary Scott

In Barclay’s adaptation, three stories (two occurring within Shakespeare’s main story) are presented within Bill Barclay’s outermost introductory story, which focuses on correspondence that Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn exchange as they discuss Felix’s ongoing work composing incidental music to Shakespeare’s play. It gets a bit confusing at times (especially as Shakespeare depicts one of the stories as an example of bad writing and acting): Actors switch from one character to another. Characters fall asleep, have weird dreams, and awaken unsure of whether they’ve been dreaming or not. Reality is upended by the enchantments of mischievous fairies. But, of course, the story itself  was meant to be confusing. It’s all part of the fun.

At times, the rapid-fire dialog was barely intelligible, but that’s the nature of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English. (All the actors delivered their lines crisply and clearly.) There are plenty of jokes and pranks in Shakespeare’s script, but Bill Barclay topped them all with a joke of his own:

Caleb Mayo delivering the night's punchline: 'We must have a wall.'

Caleb Mayo delivering the night’s punchline: ‘We must have a wall.’ Photo: Hilary Scott

Actor Caleb Mayo (who alternated between the roles of Felix Mendelssohn and Puck) delivered a line from Shakespeare that ended with the phrase, “We must have a wall.” And as he uttered those notorious words, he stretched out his arms and made a pouty, puckered face. The crowd came unglued, answering Mayo with a chorus of sounds probably never before heard in the Shed: shrieks, giggles, groans, cackles, squeals, and cries of lamentation. Think Comedy Central in Dante’s Inferno. But all’s well that ends satisfactorily, and the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream all live happily ever after.

The cast: Bill Barclay, stage director; Kiera Duffy, soprano; Abigail Fischer, mezzo-soprano; Caleb Mayo (Mendelssohn, Puck); Karen MacDonald (Titania); Antonio Weissinger (Young Mendelssohn, Boy); Will Lyman (Oberon).

One last little detail: The Boston Symphony Orchestra, lurking discreetly all evening in the shadows, performed Mendelssohn’s beloved music perfectly.

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