Shakespeare Masque: music Sally Beamish, text Carol Ann Duffy
Garrick Ode: music Thomas Arne, Sally Beamish, text David Garrick
Conductor: Jeffrey Skidmore
Birmingham Town Hall, Sunday 24 April
(Performances to come in Hereford, Wolverhampton, London, Nottingham)
Review: Alexander Ray Edser, 24 April, Birmingham Town Hall
Beautifully performed, a fitting Shakespeare celebration
Ex Cathedra is no stranger to commissions; although specialising in early music they have a commissioning record to be proud of. This programme, devised to join the celebrations of Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago is ambitious. The second part of the programme is a set of poems by Carol Ann Duffy set to music by Sally Beamish. To partner this new work they have revived a musical version of a Shakespeare Ode written and performed by David Garrick with music by Thomas Arne.
Much of Arne’s music was lost or destroyed, so accompaniments have been reconstructed and Sally Beamish has re-imagined an opening and closing chorus.
It’s a fitting first half. Samuel West, dressed as Garrick, and addressing a bust of Shakespeare, commands us to attend – ‘Prepare! Prepare!’, words taken up by the chorus. Solos and duets are interwoven with Garrick’s verse. West is superb in his presentation; his characterisation at times authoritative, warm, funny – and he is always crystal clear. As the work progresses you are struck by the sheer beauty of the singing, soloists who characterise with surprising ease, voices unforced, perfectly comfortable in Birmingham’s Town Hall.
Ex Cathedra is accompanied by its own early music ensemble; under Jeffrey Skidmore’s directly singers, speaker, and musicians merge into a seamless whole. This really feels like a lovely 18th Century entertainment.
The major work is the Shakespeare Masque. Duffy’s poems are exquisite explorations of Shakespeare’s many facets. Beamish has composed for large resources, drawing on, in Skidmore’s words, ‘the Ex Cathedra family.’ This means the choir, Ex Cathedra’s choir of young people, a choir formed from local school children, and Ex Cathedra’s audience – a truly integrated event.
Beamish composes each section as a dance; choirs and musicians move around, filling the Hall with music. Sections are markedly different in styles, from the chanted ‘Please one and please all’, to the women as Anne Hathaway ‘The bed we loved . . . ‘, to the strangeness of ‘By force I was fixed / by fancy to write . . . ‘. Beamish solves the problem of period tone by composing for period instruments but incorporating a wide range of modern percussion. Moreover, with the bold use of a bell chime (or is it tolling?) Beamish links both works, reminding us that this is one celebration.
The choir, all parts of it, were in fine form; it seems there is no style they cannot tackle and achieve. Skidmore directs it all with confidence, sensitivity and mighty good humour.
This is a 3D performance – music and theatre are (fittingly) mixed in equal measures. You really need to be there to experience it fully. And there’s still chance, performances still to come in Hereford, Wolverhampton, London and Nottingham. A fitting tribute to the world’s most famous playwright and poet.