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It's Just A Dream: Reimagining Choral Masterpieces


By Meghan Berneking


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As the May Festival enters a new era with a revitalized artistic leadership model and looks forward to returning to a newly restored Music Hall in May 2018, the Festival remains rooted in choral masterpieces, rediscovering them in fresh, collaborative ways.

For this year’s May Festival, the artistic planning team has introduced the “Dream Project,” consisting of two performances that will feature enhanced multimedia elements. The first installment of the Dream Project will explore Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream conducted by Matthew Halls on Saturday, May 20, while the second focuses on Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius under the baton of Michael Francis on Friday, May 26. Both performances will incorporate immersive video projection and dramatic lighting designed to facilitate the audience’s experience of the music as a quest, complete with mystery, revelation, searching and the discovery of the truth about something— that is, as a dream.

The creative team driving both performances includes May Festival 2017 Creative Partner Gerard McBurney and his frequent collaborator Mike Tutaj. Mr. McBurney, best known for his work as the director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s hugely successful “Beyond the Score” series, has garnered a reputation of using theater to challenge ideas about space and music. His goal for the Dream Project is to make the Taft Theatre come alive as a place of beauty, making it conducive to rich interpretations of these works. Mr. Tutaj’s work as a video and production designer has led him to stages across the country, ranging from opera to children’s theater.

A scene from the 2016 semi-staged May Festival performance of Verdi’s Otello.

The simple designs are not only inspired by the music, but are intended to enhance it along with the text. “The idea is that the music will take first place. We’re interested in the unconscious effect of lighting and projection, plus the layout of the stage,” said Mr. McBurney. Through these various theatrical elements that support the music, one might rediscover familiar music as one might rediscover an old friend. Much of what Mr. McBurney and Mr. Tutaj will produce will be dictated by the space within the Taft Theatre. Since most projections will be on wall surfaces rather than a film screen, the result will be atmospheric and ethereal, producing “a kind of dreamlike state,” as Mr. McBurney describes.

The added elements emerge from the works themselves. In fact, Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was originally intended to be performed in a theatrical setting, said Mr. McBurney. The Dream Project will help take this work, which is often heard as concert music, back to the circumstances for which it was written. “If we can produce a few theatrical elements to take us back to that, we sense something else of how remarkable Mendelssohn’s score really is,” he said. When discussing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s impossible not to mention William Shakespeare’s play. This performance will include actors reciting excerpts from the play. Not unlike the characters, who seem caught between the world of men and the world of fairies, the audience will sense the veil between dream and reality.

Likewise, Elgar’s oratorio, based on a poem of the same name by Cardinal John Henry Newman, was composed for grand forces, and the dramatic nature of the text invites a more immersive visual experience to accompany the music. It is a work close to Mr. McBurney, a compatriot of Elgar, who has been performing the work since his childhood years as a chorister. At the time he composed the work, Elgar was deeply absorbed in the operas of Wagner, and while Elgar himself never penned an opera, The Dream of Gerontius was inspired by Parsifal. Some of the first performances of The Dream of Gerontius took place in Europe’s medieval cathedrals, with vast acoustics and naturally dark spaces conducive to the shadow world in which much of the text is set. In preparing for the Dream Project, Mr. McBurney and Mr. Tutaj visited some of these cathedrals for inspiration, as well as the home in which Elgar wrote the work. “Elgar was trying to write a Parsifal for where he was living. So we’re going to try to capture a bit of that,” said Mr. McBurney. For this performance, Mr. McBurney will incorporate three movement artists who slink, ghostlike, among the members of the orchestra on stage. “There’s a lot of talk about shadows in the text of Gerontius. I’m looking for ways to emphasize the nightmare that’s taking place,” he said.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande with multimedia effects as part of a three-year experimental project.

Incorporating visual elements into a traditional concert experience is not a new concept. Chorus America recently published an article describing some of the ways choruses and orchestras across the country are incorporating theatrical elements into their programming. The article points out that such staging goes back for centuries. The May Festival has experimented with the concert format as recently as 2016, with a semi-staged performance of Verdi’s Otello, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Pelléas Trilogy has used minimalist sets, projection and lighting to draw audiences into the music. In the end, the goal is not only to open audience members’ understanding of the works themselves, but also to share how the works might speak to particular times and circumstances in history. “Works of art aren’t objects, but part of a conversation,” said Mr. McBurney, “about what they meant in the past, what they mean now and what they might mean in the future.”