Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has had such an incredible impact on Western culture over the years that almost everyone knows a phrase or two from the play, such as “To be or not to be” and “Get thee to a nunnery.” But most of us may not realize how “Hamlet” has affected the musical world.
In its upcoming concert series, the Vancouver Symphony will explore the influence of Hamlet in classical music. But it will do so in a way that will combine the theatrical prowess of actor Kirk Mouser and the Hamlet-inspired music of Franz Liszt, William Walton, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Dimitri Shostakovich.
Mouser is a Portland native and Broadway veteran who has collaborated with several orchestras in theatrical performances. He credits his early studies with the violin as part of the reason that he likes to work with orchestras. His personal highlights include productions of Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS” at the Vatican and at Carnegie Hall. Last year, he teamed up with the Portland Chamber Orchestra as the actor and narrator of HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein!” and he played the role of Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a few years ago with the Portland Chamber Orchestra. He is now the artistic director of Stumptown Stages in Portland.
“This concert with the Vancouver Symphony will be the first of its kind in that we are bringing together four different composers under the umbrella of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with words from the play,” said Mouser. “The program has such a great range because some of the works were composed for the concert stage and some for the cinema.”
All of the works are very dramatic. Liszt wrote his “Symphonic Poem No. 10 — Hamlet” in 1858 and it does not lack for “Sturm und Drang” (“Storm and Stress”), which is a trademark of the Romantic era. Musicologists have debated the themes of Tchaikovsky’s “Hamlet Overture-Fantasia,” written in 1888, but have never nailed down exactly which sections of the play are depicted. Walton composed his “Hamlet: A Shakespeare Scenario” in 1947 for a film that was directed by Laurence Olivier. Shostakovich wrote the film score for the great Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev’s “Hamlet” in 1964.
“The Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich pieces will be set up by Hamlet’s monologues,” Mouser said. “Shakespeare’s words will introduce the music. It might be something about Ophelia’s death or the poisoning of the father. It will help to establish the mood of the piece.”
Walton’s work is the only one on the program that has words interspersed with the music. Walton wrote more than 50 minutes of music for the film and that has been wonderfully arranged by Christopher Palmer into 40 minutes of music and narration.
“Walton’s piece has beautiful, lush, haunting music that underscores some of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquies, including his famous “To be or not to be,” Mouser said. “It will be fun to perform that live with the same intention that Olivier had when he created, directed,
and starred in the film. The Walton piece was nominated for an Oscar for best orchestration of a screenplay. It uses eight soliloquies plus some additional dialogue, such as that of the ghosts and the retelling of Ophelia’s death.”
Mouser is a big fan of The Bard, dating back to his days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“My first taste of working professionally was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where, as a junior in high school, I was engaged in a summer educational seminar and was invited back to be a teaching assistant the following year. I developed a strong love for Shakespeare’s work.”
Saying he worked professionally in New York for 20 years, the actor noted, “The last production of Shakespeare that I did was the role of Jacques in ‘As You Like It’ in New York.”
For his Vancouver Symphony debut, Mouser will use some intriguing props — he would not disclose exactly what they are — and he indicated that there will be some interaction between himself and conductor Salvador Brotons.
“This will be a theatrically engaging performance,” Mouser said. “It will be fun for the audience to watch as well as listen.”