Balancing music and text: Albany Symphony Orchestra plays Zankel

Posted by Samantha Hoffmann

On Oct. 22 the Albany Symphony Orchestra and actors from the Capital Repertory Theatre treated the college's Arthur Zankel Music Hall to a wonderfully animated performance.

The main event of the night was the playing of Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music to Shakespeare's play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." An additional treat to open the concert was the world premiere of three melodramas, also based on scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The orchestra's performance of all four works left very little to be desired. The precision and emotion shown by each individual player culminated in an enveloping quality felt throughout the entire hall. Pairing the music with the talented acting of the Capital Repertory Theatre players and the humorous use of explanatory charts and sarcastic commentary made the whole performance entertaining and enjoyable.

Being treated to three new compositions allowed the audience to feel like Goldilocks, sampling melodramas rather than porridge. The first composition put too much emphasis on the music, the last put too little emphasis on the music and the middle composition balanced the music and text "just right."

Melodramas are comprised of music and spoken text, which is an unusual element for composers to work with. Each approach showed a different way of balancing music and text.

Lukas Olejnik's "That Fire Which Burned the Carthage Queen" put great emphasis on the musical passages, which made the intervals between each line of spoken text almost too long. Consequently, it was difficult to follow the storyline since by the time one line was said one had easily forgotten the previous one.

Shen Yiwen's composition, "How Happy Some O'er Other Some Can Be!" showed a more symbiotic relationship between music and text. The equal balance allowed the listener to appreciate both elements as well as notice how they worked in conjunction. Shen put ironic twists on excerpts from Mendelssohn's incidental music to emphasize the text's themes.

Right after the actress playing Helena spoke of her foiled marriage plans with Demetrius, the orchestra played a distorted version of the famed Wedding March, taking the jubilant first few chords and twisting them into hectic unhappiness.

Benjamin Pesetsky's "Pyramus and Thisbe: Burlesque for Orchestra" took full advantage of the comical, disastrous elements of the play within a play. In this melodrama, there was more emphasis on the actors and the text, while the music took a back seat. Even though the acting was entertaining and the audience clearly enjoyed the use of gimmicks, such as hats and cross-dressing, it seemed as though something was lost by the music having such a small role.

Playing a work as famous as Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" can be very nerve-wracking since most people attending such a performance have their own idea of how the piece should sound before they enter the hall. If the Albany Symphony Orchestra members were nervous however, they never showed it.

The precision and accuracy with which the incredibly fast passages were played, the flawless intonation of the exposed opening chords and everything in between showed only confidence and extreme preparation on the part of each orchestral member. This performance of Mendelssohn's famed piece showed why it is still held in such high regard over 160 years after it was written.

For all of their impressive professional playing, the ensemble's evident sense of humor was a clincher when it came to gaining the audience's high praises. Its format of interspersing scene excerpts and filling in narrative gaps with explanations and commentary was innovative.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra succeeded in keeping the audience interested in both Shakespeare's playful story and Mendelssohn's captivating music so much so that the performers received a standing ovation and spattering of "Bravo!"s at the end of the two and a half hour concert.

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