On Thursday evening Ex Cathedra presented Shakespeare Odes, a reconstruction of David Garrick and Thomas Arne’s 1769 Ode in praise of William Shakespeare, and A Shakespeare Masque, a 21st-century response to the earlier work with text by Carol Ann Duffy and music by Sally Beamish. ‘Presented’ here is the operative word, as at times it felt as though Ex Cathedra had done all the promoting and organising, and everyone else was having all the fun. It was an evening of mostly excellent performances, but it felt devoid of an opportunity for Ex Cathedra to do what they do best, which is present solidly established choral repertoire.
In terms of the music for the Arne/Garrick Ode, only the short-score of the eight airs and a semi-chorus survived – from which Adrian Horsewood had made an arrangement. The solos/duet were taken by individual members of Ex Cathedra, who all gave outstanding performances – Jeremy Budd (as ‘Mr Vernon’), in particular, presented a magnificently boozy Falstaff in A world where all pleasures abound. The whole was accompanied by a violin/harpsichord/bass viol trio provided by members of The City Musick, whose light touch and sure playing created as much of a full and busy orchestral underpinning as was needed.
Alas, it was the extras that took the edge off the delight. The missing music for the two full choruses was replaced by Sally Beamish’s settings of the words. Her largely homophonic note-cluster writing (doesn’t anyone write counterpoint any more?) was at odds with the soufflé texture of the rest of the piece; although the choruses provided atmospheric solemnity, they had about them none of the agile joy of Arne’s settings. The actor Samuel West was cast, in this production, as Garrick, and provided the spoken sections of the Ode. What we know of Garrick suggests a man with a monumental ego, who saw Shakespeare as a vehicle for his greatness (the 1769 event contained no Shakespeare at all, for example, and was largely an opportunity for Garrick to engage with his public). West had not memorised his lines, and his need to read from the copy (and, at the same time, to the statue of Shakespeare) resulted in a mannered and pastel performance; what was needed here was the barnstorming personality of a Brian Blessed.
For A Shakespeare Masque the ensemble was augmented by a recorder, percussion a treble viol and three plucked instruments (again from The City Musick), members of the Ex Cathedra Academy, and a large chorus of children from three schools.
The performing standard remained high – with the younger performers engaging with the music to great effect. Beamish’s sectionally homophonic vocal writing made engagement easy; many of the numbers involved canons or rounds (with different performers singing or speaking different material – involving even the audience). Within the structure, the thirteen movements provided interest and musical variety – so, for example, the spoken rhythmic movement Please one and Please All contrasted well with the lyric solo movement The bed we loved in. The instrumental movements – modern paraphrases of 16th-century dances (Almain, Pavan etc.) – provided yet more contrast, and an opportunity for the singers to change positions (as well as a slightly welcome relief from the homophony).
Ultimately, though – as should rightly be the case in a celebration of an author – Carol Ann Duffy’s text was the star of the show, and elevated the music that accompanied it; who could not draw a delighted breath at the words “ …my body now a softer rhyme to his, now echo, assonance; his touch a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.” ?