St John’s Smith Square 2016/17: Southbank Sinfonia play Shakespeare in Music

Southbank Sinfonia forms an important part of the St John’s Smith Square season this year. This event was an inventive presentation that combined dialogue and speeches of Shakespeare’s plays with incidental music written for a range of RSC productions by a wide range of British composers.

Samuel West – his voice maturing more and more like his father’s as the years speed past – was a beautiful indulgence. So too Patricia Hodge, Southbank Sinfonia patron, Lila Clements and Maggie Service. Benedict Salter gave us a mysterious, possibly sinister yet alluring Puck. David Threfall sometimes seemed a little lost, especially at the end of The Tempest.

It was an interesting exploration of the familiar and unfamiliar which unwittingly competed with the beauty of the poetry. In the context of a theatrical production the incidental music would have made sense, but here with excerpts from each play giving a flavour of proceedings, the inherent lack of development in the music was laid bare.

The flip side was hearing different approaches to musical illustrations scanning nearly a century.

The most notable contrast was that between the musical orthodoxy of Rosabel Watson’s 1925 score to King John and the brooding and sinister writing of Edmund Rubbra’s Macbeth composed 21 years later.

Jonathan Dove’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 2002 with its prominent use of vibraphone worked best as a concert experience in amongst a programme which was essentially a multi-discipline root through the RSC archive. It was a good idea but as a whole, I think I wanted a work with more development to contrast the excerpts.

Southbank Sinfonia, a group of post-graduates and young professionals played pit band under the direction of conductor Simon Over. They gave us verve and thunder in places, although the event made it difficult for them to shine beyond the limitations of the music.

Their next engagement at the National Theatre – providing live accompaniment for a new production of Amadeus – is a tantalising prospect. Previews 19 and 20 October.

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