Shakespeare through music

Alexander Shelley will lead the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music inspired by...
Alexander Shelley will lead the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music inspired by William Shakespeare. Photo supplied
Celebrating William Shakespeare's 450th birthday, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is playing a concert of music inspired by the playwright, conductor Alexander Shelley tells Charmian Smith.
Alexander Shelley finds it fascinating to hear how four very different composers wrote music influenced by the words and plays of Shakespeare.

''All four, in very different musical language, manage to encapsulate the fantasy world Shakespeare created,'' he said.

He is conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's concert ''Shakespeare in Music'' in the Dunedin Town Hall tonight.

The works range from Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, through Richard Strauss' Macbeth to Erich Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing Suite (1920) and William Walton's Henry V Suite, written for the 1944 film starring Laurence Olivier.

Korngold (1897-1957), who is being rediscovered by the musical world, was a child prodigy.

When he was 7 or 8 years old he met Strauss and Mahler, who both thought he was a genius, and at the age of 12 wrote his first opera, Die tote Stadt, (The Dead City) which was a worldwide hit, Shelley said.

A Jewish boy from Vienna, Korngold was drawn to Los Angeles in the 1930s to write the score for Robin Hood, a film starring Errol Flynn.

He stayed in the US, because Hitler had annexed Austria, and became a notable Hollywood composer.

The lush, big orchestral Hollywood sound associated with films from the 1930s to the 1950s was Korngold's voice, and a continuation of the style of Richard Strauss, Shelley said.

''People at the end of the 20th century thought his work was derivative, the irony being there was no Hollywood sound like that before he created it. People have come round since to realising the extraordinary quality of his music.''

Like Korngold, Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a child prodigy and his Midsummer Night's Dream music contains some of the most famous music in the world, such as the ''Wedding March''.

''The fairies are captured perfectly in the quick dancing violins. It's very difficult for the strings, and another scherzo that comes straight after it has the feeling of a fairy-like magic world, as well as anybody could have done at the time.''

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) captures the tragic deep story of Macbeth in his music and Walton's music for Henry V may be film music but it is skewed towards the concert hall, with a little more depth than you might expect, Shelley said.

''With a couple of moments of exception - there are some battle scenes that are still very good music but slightly more superficial - there are some extraordinary moments of empathy in the score. There's one movement called 'Touch her soft lips and part' which are lines from Shakespeare. It's such beautiful music, it only lasts four minutes, it's very simple just for the strings, but it's breathtakingly beautiful and feels very deep as well.

''It's a different language to what Korngold writes in his film music. It's less lush and less perfumed.''

Growing up in the UK with a father who was a conductor and both parents concert pianists, Shelley inevitably chose a musical career.

''I grew up listening to classical music at home - my mum and dad practising all day long - and on tour with them around the world when I was a baby and as a young man, so the lifestyle I lead now is is the lifestyle I led as a little kid,'' he said.

The cello was his instrument and from the age of 17 he studied in Dusseldorf for eight or nine years.

In 2005 he won the Leeds Conductors Competition which kicked off his conducting career.

He believes he always wanted to be a conductor, although he didn't know it.

''When I was a little kid my parents let me choose what pieces I wanted to listen to and I would always choose orchestral music. I loved the sound of the orchestra. I loved the stories orchestral music told, the sound world. Rather than the cello repertoire, orchestral scores became a passion of mine. I wanted to be involved with that.''

He loves the intimate time spent learning the pieces, then standing in front of an orchestra and realising them, he said.

''To conduct it has to be based on an awful lot of hard work, of learning a score, of learning about an orchestra, of being prepared. I think generally that ernest dedication to something that isn't you but is something else, of learning someone else's music, leads to most conductors being very grounded people.''

He does not approach a score thinking how he is going to do it, but tries to find ''the truth'' the composer wanted, he said.

''By virtue of the fact that I'm me, it will be slightly different from what someone else thinks.''

As a conductor, it was important to be aware of what the composer would have expected an orchestra to sound like in their day, and the development of instruments, he said.

''The oboe, the clarinet, the trumpet, the tympany have all changed over the last few centuries, so when you look at a score and you see a doubling, say for example oboe playing with trumpet, if both instruments nowadays play loud, forte, you won't hear the oboe, you'll just hear the trumpet. But back in the day it was different. That's an example of being aware of what the instruments are capable of.''

While Shelley was a student in Dusseldorf, he and the players in the orchestra he conducted were keen to make classical music accessible to other young people.

''We always enjoyed other styles apart from classical music. We used to go clubbing together and out to bars and we'd hear pop and jazz and we also played it ourselves.'' he said.

Feeling all music belonged together rather than bound into different genres, they put together a series of concerts over five or six years with guests from other genres.

''They had to be people whose music we liked and I'd meet them and find out if they actually enjoyed classical music and if they did, what their influences were. Then we'd put together programmes of music they had been influenced by or they enjoyed or they felt shared their stylistic approach or philosophical approach or whatever.''

The concerts were called 440Hz, which is the frequency of A that Western musicians tune to.

The concerts attracted fans of the guest artist, but soon they gained the trust of the audience, who would come along even if they didn't know the guest band, he said.

The concerts started at 9pm, seats were often moved from the hall, and afterwards there would be a party, with a DJ or the orchestra playing pop covers.

''I garnered very useful experience because for me, there is no one solution to make what we do as accessible and engaging for as many people as possible.''

However music was performed - with elegance and refinement in beautiful concert halls, which is a Victorian construct; outside or in a church, as in Bach's day; in a building used for trade, as in the 18th-century Leipzig Gewandhaus, now replaced by a modern building seating more than 1900 people where he was conducting recently - there were many ways music could be presented, he said.

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