The art of translation has often been compared to a conversation between two languages. The same could be said about music inspired by a literary text, except that the spirit rather than the letter takes precedence when translating to purely instrumental music. The Boston Symphony’s final program in its Shakespeare series presented musical translations by four different composers from four different countries.

Andris Nelsons © Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
© Marco Borggreve

Though composed before Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, Strauss’ tone poem Macbeth was performed after them and when the composer had already surpassed himself. Overall, the piece is regal and martial, marked from the outset by trumpet fanfares reminiscent of Die Walküre. Strauss rinses Shakespeare in the waters of the Rhine, Wagner’s Rhine. The result is a series of one-dimensional illustrations by a skilled artist with a large orchestra as his palette. None of the psychological complexity of the play is even hinted at. Nelsons, an accomplished Wagner conductor, cast this aspect of the score in sharp relief, but he couldn’t help keeping parts of Macbeth from sounding like a Korngold soundtrack.

Dvořák’s overture Othello was originally the final piece in a tone poem triptych, Nature, Life and Love. Dvořák seriously considered changing Othello to Tragic or Heroic, despite his manuscript score including quotes of specific passages from the play. A motif called “Nature” threads the triptych and appears tellingly and in grotesque distortion twice in Othello. Nature for Dvořák was a quasi-religious concept denoting life’s animating force. Othello illustrates how this life force in the form of eros can be perverted by jealousy into its deadly opposite, thanatos. The overture begins in strict sonata form. Order and structure soon begin to crumble as the first iteration of the grotesque version of “Nature” announces the beginning of the corrosive effect of Othello’s increasing jealousy and rage. Passion dominates and sweeps the sonata form away; the music tears pell mell to its tragic conclusion and Othello’s self-annihilation. Dvořák may have had reservations about tying this piece to Shakespeare’s play, but neither Nelsons nor the orchestra did. The shifts in mood and structure were executed convincingly and the drama painted in broad, vigorous strokes.

Tchaikovsky felt a sense of inevitability about Romeo and Juliet, confiding at one point that he was “made to set the play to music”. That feeling became more poignant in the wake of his own “star-crossed” love affair. The Russian masterfully distilled the essence of Shakespeare's five acts into approximately 20 minutes of music. Nelsons’ choice of tempi, the lingering caresses he lavished on certain passages from the prayerful opening to the familiar love theme, made this a languid rather than lustful reading. The closing drum roll and chords resounded as if drawn up from the depths of the earth itself.

George Tsontakis is a 65 year-old composer, conductor, and educator. He studied with Hugo Weisgall, Franco Donatoni, and Roger Sessions. A skilled colorist who favors the clarity and space of textures represented by his idols the Impressionists and Messiaen, his style is essentially tonal. BSO Artistic Administrator, Anthony Fogg steered his long simmering commission toward this year’s Shakespeare celebrations.“SonnetsTone Poems for English Horn and Orchestra is the result. Along with soloist Robert Sheena, Tsontakis chose  4 poems: #30, #12, #60, and #75.

Lost friends in #30 reminded Tsontakis of his late mentor Roger Sessions. Only later did he notice his “name” in the first line. Hints of Ives and Sessions himself tinge #30 while the plangent tone of Sheena’s English horn captures the sense of loss and yearning, then lifts and lightens as hope and solace return. #12, marked “Meditative Eastern,”makes full use of an exotic array of percussion to mark the inexorable passage of time beginning with the opening tick-tock of the marimba and including the recurrent sounds of distant chimes and bells weaving in and out of the score. Assymetrical dance rhythms and the English horn’s mesmerizing, snake-charmer interventions add to the impression that this could be as much Omar Khayyám as Shakespeare. Tsontakis describes his setting of #60 as a “mercurial” scherzo which “in essence only [sets] the opening two lines.” The soloist’s contribution is minimal. The orchestra dominates and the BSO took the opportunity by the reins. The ebb and flow of the waves with its accompanying sighing pebbles was made  strikingly palpable. Tsontakis ends with a love poem where, “the English horn actually ‘sings’ the sonnet, line for line— as if intoning the enamored words.” Like the Dvořák, jealousy intrudes to darken love’s idyll. However, just as the sonnet’s closing couplet restores love to its rightful place, so does the English horn’s soothing caress.

All involved collaborated to make a most eloquent and convincing case for “Sonnets”. Here’s hoping the opportunity to hear them again turns up soon.