The season at the Kennedy Center opened, as it always does, with a rendition of the American national anthem. The program celebrated patriotism of a different sort, however: that of the merry England kind. Musical, balletic as well as theatrical homages to Shakespeare have abounded in DC this anniversary year; the city has a particular connection with the Bard, boasting the world’s largest Shakespeare collection in the Folger Library on Capitol Hill. Tonight actors, under Alan Paul, the Associate Artistic director of the city’s Shakespeare Theatre, joined orchestra, under British conductor Edward Gardner, to present the first of two concerts entitled Shakespeare at the Symphony. It is a valuable sign of communion in a city where the cultural institutions, however first-class, sometimes seem set apart from the vital life of the city.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Occasionally, we find a distinct mismatch between what a composer thinks of a particular work, and how posterity has judged it to be. Elgar’s Falstaff is one such. Elgar enjoyed writing it, and thought of it as his greatest orchestral work. Audiences then and since have never quite felt this, and are perhaps closer in spirit to Landon Ronald, the conductor (and the piece’s dedicatee) who was reputed to have said that he “never could make head or tail” of it. Under the baton of Gardner, making his NSO debut, we wondered why not. With a few off-the-cuff opening remarks, he endeared us to the work by describing it as “rather like Strauss’ Don Juan, only instead of being about the greatest lover in history, it is about an overweight English guy”. Gardner clearly had a particular feeling for the work. The snapshots of Falstaff’s life were conveniently identified by surtitles; although purists might demur, these were a help rather than a hindrance and saved one from the anxiety of wondering when drinking at Boar’s Head gave way to flirting with Mistress Quickly. Not that anyone could mistake the fine orchestral snore – perhaps the best in musical history – featuring basses and tuba. Gardner got the orchestra to portray the larger-than-life Falstaff with great conviction, coaxing a rollicking, fat sound from them – full of jolly embonpoint, raucous jokes and lastly pathos. Some well-timed caesuras and dramatic changes in pitch marked Prince Hal’s repudiation of his former drinking buddy, who lopped to his close with dotted rhythms. The music ended fittingly with his death – petering out, a final roar and then a sudden, anti-climactic drop. The work is a revelation – we should hear it more performed.

Walton’s 1963 Suite from Henry V was arranged from his 1944 film score, music which Laurence Olivier said had “actually made the film”, no small judgment considering how successful the film was. Tonight the NSO effectively evoked the varied tones of the work, from the bright and shiny Renaissance fanfares to the pathos of Falstaff’s death and the ferocity of  battle. Before the rousing Agincourt Song, actor Matthew Raunch recited the St Crispin’s day speech – a great deal of fist-pumping and what Shakespeare would have called “sawing of the air”, without huge amounts of kingly dignity – but nonetheless a thoughtful addition.

What does it do for Tchaikovsky’s ever-beloved Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture to have actors on stage beforehand to perform the Balcony Scene, asks the critic? Well, I might have said before, it gives us a sense of what Tchaikovsky must have been feeling for the drama to evoke a response in him. But tonight was seemingly about juxtaposition. Audrey Bertaux and William Vaughan were dramatic, to say the least, she perched on the choir balcony, he making his own of the stage and conductor’s podium, but somewhat unsubtle and over-egged. She was Valley Girl in style (like, totally); he a dazed slightly commitment-phobe teen; it was earthly (they got more comic innuendo out of the scene than I’ve ever seen before) and amusing rather than aching and romantic. Coming after this, Tchaikovsky’s lush score brought us back to a more traditional interpretation. It opened with quite splendid restraint and aloofness, as we left our shrill extrovert lovers behind, and foreboding strings, and there was an elegance in the way Gardner brought forward particular desks. There was sufficient rapture and torture to keep most of us happy for an evening, and I think, on the whole, I’d take that over selfie-generation calflove any day.