Symphony plays disparate duo

Words, music collide merrily

18. Jan. 2002 – Try reciting these lines, written by Edith Sitwell, very, very quickly:


Where in the haycocks the country nymphs' gay flocks

Wear gowns that are looped over bright yellow petticoats,

Gaiters of leather and peasants' tall feathers

In straw hats bewildering many a leathern bat.


Now try it with a band playing energetically behind you.

That is Linda Maguire's task this weekend, as she recites "Façade," the "entertainment" of 21 surrealistic-going-on-nonsensical poems set to music that Sitwell and the 20-year-old composer William Walton introduced in 1922.

"Façade" is the main course of a Richmond Symphony program called "Two Voices of England - Shakespeare and Sitwell."

Two more disparate voices one could hardly imagine, especially as Sitwell's jaundiced whimsy shares the bill with Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

Grant Mudge's readings from "Hamlet," accompanied by Dmitri Shostakovich's music for what sounds like a vaudeville pit orchestra, sound every bit as surreal as "Façade."

In contrast to these pieces, Henry Purcell's incidental music for "The Fairy Queen" (1692), stately and elegant as it is, sounds pretty tame.

Maguire sings three airs from the Purcell suite stylishly, keeping her mezzo-soprano mostly steady through some tough coloratura runs and making "The Plaint" a lovely duet with concertmaster Karen Johnson.

But Magire's tour de force (or tour de farce?) is "Façade."

Walton casts the reciter (originally, Sitwell speaking from behind curtains through a megaphone) almost as a musical instrument, sounding fairly deep within an ensemble of nine winds, strings and percussion.

The voice must be rhythmically, sonorously musical while delivering a lot of not easily recitable words (seen above), as well as projecting a wryly witty, English drawing-room character.

Getting through Sitwell's Gilbert & Sullivan-go-dada potter without serious mishap, intoning the more mellifluous verses in a merrily fulsome drawl, Maguire earned the standing ovation she recived after last night's performance.

Mudge, director of the Encore Theater Company's Richmond Shakespeare Festival, is a conversational reciter, delivering famous lines such as the "To be or not to be" soliloquy as if they were contributions to an earnest, late-night bull session.

Such an approach can usefully refocus attention away from the actor and toward Shakespeare, but it still must be heard, and Mudge's delivery did not carry through Virginia Commonwealth University's Vlahcevic Concert Hall last night.

His low-key delivery contrasts wildly with the over-the-top score the 26-year-old Shostakovich wrote in 1932 for an avant-garde production of "Hamlet." Much of the music is audibly influenced by Kurt Weill's jazzy theater scores, although the "Cradle Song,"played by a string quartet, anticipates the less frisky, more mature Shostakovich.

Eckart Preu, the symphony's associate conductor, leads this highly varied program with a steady hand and a good ear for both baroque and modern styles. The orchestra sounds thoroughly, engaged in the novel sounds it's called on to make.



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