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Gazette Premium Content Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare loosely connected but well performed by Philharmonic

by DAVID SCKOLNIK Special to The Gazette - Published: March 16, 2014

Whether it's the Chicago Symphony produced "Beyond the Score" presentations or associate conductor Thomas Wilson's concept and creation, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's "Vanguard Performances are designed to bring new light to great works of classical music.

To date, the Chicago imports have used video, live acting and live music to convoluted excess. In last season's inquiry into Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," Wilson used the same tools and a simplified storyline toward a more engaging presentation. He chose that approach Saturday night at Pikes Peak Center for "Tchaikovsky's Shakespeare." This time, the information and perspective were actually too minimal.

Instead of opening with the history and details of the piece followed by a second half with an complete performance, Wilson wisely chose a different tack. Deconstructing orchestral fantasies inspired by "Hamlet," "The Tempest" and "Romeo and Juliet," each became a self-contained presentation.

TheatreWorks founder and artistic director Murray Ross was on the other side of a production as narrator for the evening. While lacking the confidence and oratory skills of a professional actor, his depth of knowledge of his art form played well over the footlights. He began with a long history lesson. With the help of a flurry of photos, Ross spoke of Tchaikovsky's obsessions with the female figures in his early life, then leaping ahead to the tragic suicide at 53.

All three of these Shakespearian settings are heavily programmatic: That is, the characters and details of each play are directly depicted in the music. With such an obvious opportunity to connect the audience to the music, I found it hard to justify that the script provided a mere sightseeing bus tour of each. Nevertheless, the sum of the parts certainly enhanced the appreciation of what Tchaikovsky accomplished.

The most outstanding part of the presentations was the projections of great paintings inspired by these dramas through the ages. It was also impossible to not be moved by the spectacular filmed images of flowers opening their petalsduring "Romeo and Juliet's" incredible love theme.

Ross brought two professional actors from TheatreWork's upcoming production of "Venus in Fur." Jon Barker and Carley Cornelius' readings from the actual plays were a nice touch, although it would have been far more effective if their short monologues had been given to the audience off script.

All the research Wilson had done to realize this program paid off in another way. As a conductor, he made sure the orchestra's performances were profoundly connected to the visualizations and emotions in the music. These were powerful readings.

"Hamlet" was the weakest performance of the three. It was marred at times by lack of a solid sound from orchestral sections - specifically, the cellos, violins and French horns. "The Tempest" was terrific. Here the orchestra never lost focus and each section showed up as an individual voice when called for. Dynamic contrasts and depictions of the many varied moods of the play were spot on.

The greatest success came courtesy of the one truly great work under discussion: "Romeo and Juliet." Its final revision was a huge success for Tchaikovsky and this performance made it clear why.

As the most performed work of the evening, "Romeo and Juliet" might have suffered from over-familiarityfor the orchestra and audience. Not on this night. Wilson inspired his players to a fresh interpretation that's outstanding for its patience at reaching the highs of unbridled conflict and eternal love.

What's next

"The Music of Queen"

When: 8 p.m. March 29

Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.

Tickets: $12-$59; 520-7469, pikespeakcenter.com

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