Friday, December 15, 2017

Spirit of Mendelssohn lives on in Victoria Symphony production

January 7, 2015 by Keagan Hawthorne, contributing writer

German composer Felix Mendelssohn was only 17 years old when he read Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time. Mendelssohn was enchanted by the tale of fairy-crossed lovers and mischievous tricksters in the woods. That evening, after hearing a breeze blow through some leaves in the family’s garden, he sat down and composed his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Now world-renowned maestro Bernhard Gueller, originally from Germany himself, is travelling from Halifax to conduct a Victoria Symphony performance of the Overture. There will be narrators, choirs, and soloists enacting the play alongside the symphony.

Gueller says the humorous nature of Shakespeare’s comedy lends itself particularly well to a musical adaptation.

Even if you can’t understand Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a lot to offer (photo provided).

Even if you can’t understand Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a lot to offer (photo provided).

“This piece is mainly light,” he says. “The play is not a tragedy, not a very serious or philosophically deep piece. It’s light. And, as music, this is perfect. It’s not a coincidence that Mendelssohn chose this piece.”

Mendelssohn was the first composer to condense an entire work of literature into a standalone piece of music. The Overture is full of innovative musical special effects, such as violins playing in a minor key to represent the sound of fairies scampering through the forest.

It wasn’t until near the end of his career that Mendelssohn returned to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and composed music meant to be played alongside a full theatrical production.

But the 17-year-old Mendelssohn had to battle his way through a raging blizzard to attend the first performance of his Overture. Fortunately, Victoria residents won’t have heavy German weather to contend with when the symphony performs the piece January 19.

Shakespeare’s use of language has always been famous for its lyrical rhythm. This feature can be appreciated even if the language itself is archaic. This, says Gueller, is why understanding, or even liking, Shakespeare is not a requirement for enjoying this music.

“This typical Shakespearean English, even I don’t understand it very much,” he says. “But there is still the musicality of this text. When I hear this, it touches me, although I maybe only understand half of it.”

A major motif in Shakespeare’s play is transformation. Human characters are transformed into animals, and mismatched lovers are transformed out of love, and into love again. When a character appears onstage, we’re never sure what form they will be in. Gueller says that musical performances operate the same way.

“Each time a work is performed, it’s a little bit different,” he explains. “This comes from very deep in the soul or psyche, and goes very deep into the listener. It excites you like no other art actually can do. It expresses feelings which can’t be described in words.”

Even without a snowstorm to battle through to get to the performance, what Mendelssohn envisioned at the age of 17 can touch us, too.

“Music is the greatest art of all the arts we know,” says Gueller. “Each time you play it, you create it at the moment. Music is always living.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
8 pm Monday, January 19
$30, Royal Theatre

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