One of the reasons that the works of William Shakespeare have survived over the centuries is that they have an organic quality — a universal appeal with complex characterization, poetic splendor and philosophical depth that seems to transcend time. His minimal stage directions have inspired a multitude of interpretations, with directors setting the scenes anywhere from ancient Rome to modern-day Mexico City — and he’s probably the only artist that could inspire a midsummer night’s dream in the dead of winter.
As part of the “Shakespeare in Washington” festival, the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is offering “Where Dreams Dwell,” a celebration of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The performance on Feb. 3 will feature three very different musical interpretations of the play. Selections include a ballet score by Elvis Costello, an opera by Benjamin Britton and a film score by Erich Korngold.
“In so many ways, these pieces span the 20th century,” said Adrien Finlay, general manager of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. “And the reason for their creation informs them.”
Each musical performance has its own provenance. Britton’s music, for example, was conceived as an operatic interpretation of the Shakespeare play. Its musical themes pick up on the work of Felix Mendelssohn — blending them while expanding on their style in Britton’s own special way.
“In this piece, you’ll hear quotes from several famous Mendelssohn pieces,” said Finlay. “And then Britton added his own compositions in the style of Mendelssohn.”
KORNGOLD'S MOVIE score is also an interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It appeared in the 1935 Max Reinhardt film adaptation of the famous play. Yet the most unusual piece in the performance comes from Elvis Costello — a rock musician best known for the 1977 classic “My Aim is True.”
“I was so amazed when I received the conductor’s score that I contacted the publisher and learned that Mr. Costello had written more than 200 compositions,” said Kim Allen Kluge, music director of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. “It’s fresh, imaginative, and really makes the orchestra sing.”
Mollie Danforth, executive director of the symphony, said that she hopes the Costello piece, titled “Il Songo," will bring a new audience to the Schlesinger Concert Hall. Although the symphony had scheduled the piece last year, its leaders had to scrap the plan when they learned that it was being performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — a phenomenon that created a licensing problem for the Alexandria symphony. But Danforth sees this as a hidden blessing because now the performance can be part of the regional Shakespeare festival. In addition, she said, people who are familiar with other aspects of Costello’s career might find their way to the performance to hear his less-well-known symphonic compositions.
“Costello’s piece was originally conceived as a ballet, so it has a lot of movement,” said Danforth. “It kind of makes you want to dance.”
Danforth said that the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is the only Virginia symphony to participate in the Shakespeare Festival.
“We are so thrilled to be part of the festival, and I think it’s really a exciting to be participating in this,” she said. “Part of the idea behind the festival is let people know that Washington is a place that has cultural activities. So I would encourage people to come out and participate in this part of the festival by coming to the show here in Alexandria.”