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A Singer’s Notes 119: Fall Festival, Shakespeare and Company, 2015; Jacob’s Ladder

William Shakespeare's First Folio, 1623: Title Page

William Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623: Title Page 

The first thing you notice is this—the kids get it.Complex language, big fat words, antique expressions—it doesn’t matter. They are one super-receptive brain. I have just seen the kids sitting in “the pit” make sense out of elaborate Shakespearian conceits effortlessly. How can this be? As far-fetched as it may sound, I think the Fall Festival audience is the very picture of the groundlings in the pit, in Shakespeare’s Globe. Not only do they connect with the now-ancient language, they respond to it, often audibly. Theirs is the most interactive theatre you are going to find these days. Ten schools come together each November and perform Shakespeare for each other. We’re talking somewhere between fifteen and twenty hours of Shakespeare. The young ones tell me it is like an immersion. They hear the language like it is their vernacular. Best of all, it is an inclusive festival. Everyone in the pit is actively involved. You may think this breaks the illusion of how theatre works—we’re supposed to sit there quietly, right? Don’t we expect this from our children when some important actor or musician is at work? Not at this festival. They talk back; they sympathize; they boo at the villain- they live it. At the end there is music- late on the Sunday afternoon the verbal flood subsides, and a wordless beguilingly song is played, tears are shed. The groundlings have heard the greatness.

 

The Boston Conservatory Grand Opening Performance featuring Joseph Silverstein, violin Photo Eric Antoniou.

The Boston Conservatory
Grand Opening Performance featuring Joseph Silverstein, violin
Photo Eric Antoniou.

Great musical communities are very like a ladder, the humblest freshman at conservatory, right up to the geniuses at the top. Music students have a natural capacity to worship great artists. First, there is a sense of wonder that a human being can do something so beautiful with a piece of wood or a small muscle in the throat. Then they become familiars—a lesson every week, maybe eventually a first-name basis, maybe not. Then the blessed few climb, some all the way to the top. When I was in school in Boston, the rare ones at the top included the genius Seiji Ozawa, the other genius Gunther Schuller, and the late lamented concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Silverstein. Talking with the great ones was not always easy, not because of their way with other people, but because of deep respect for them. But each of these three was easy to talk to, didn’t mind interruptions, was happy to help. Gentlest of the three was Maestro Silverstein, a soft-spoken man who had no airs about him and who played the violin as naturally as a bird sings. What I will never forget is his heaven-like playing of the violin obbligato in Bach’s “Erbarme dich” from the Matthew Passion. His intense, fast vibrato which was inexplicably gentle, held the ear captive. I was a kid singing a small part in this performance, probably fifty feet away from him on the Symphony Hall stage, but the tone seemed to always be in my ear. The aria calls for playing which hides its own virtuosity and elevates the horrific event to follow into a salvation. No one played with a sweeter tone than Maestro Silverstein. I saw him a couple of weeks ago in the theatre. He told me about his place in Florida. Now he is gone. Farewell, Maestro.

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