Marin Alsop's Guide To Mendelssohn's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' : Deceptive Cadence Inspired by Shakespeare, Mendelssohn captures all the magic and frivolity in the music he wrote for the Bard's otherworldy play.

Marin Alsop's Guide To Mendelssohn's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

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With the Memorial Day weekend comes the unofficial change of season. And next week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra helps usher it in with "A Midsummer Night's Dream." A collaboration with Washington, D.C.'s Folger Theater, the production of Shakespeare's play will include the famous incidental music that was written by Felix Mendelssohn. We're joined now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore by our friend Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Maestro, thanks very much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, my pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: A big show you have going on, isn't it?

ALSOP: Yeah, it's - I mean, it's just so perfect for this time of year, isn't it? I mean, when the seasons change and love is in the air and poetry abounds. But it's going to be an incredible production. It's directed by a wonderful director named Ed Berkeley, and we have seven actors playing the roles of 21 characters. Actors from John Bolger from "Law and Order" - I remember him from General Hospital - Linda Powell from "Chicago Fire." We have just a great cast.

SIMON: And I think nothing denotes the arrival of summer more than a casting call for dogs. I wonder if you can tell me about that.

ALSOP: (Laughter) Well, we have and incredible...

SIMON: They're looking at me in the control room. Like, I thought that was a pretty smooth transition, don't you?

ALSOP: Yeah, really. Well, there are so many things going on in this play. You can throw a dog in. You could probably even thrown an elephant in and nobody would notice.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to the music, of course, too. We have a recording, I guess, with Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra.


SIMON: This music has such authority. And it's sobering when you come to terms with the fact that Felix Mendelssohn was a teenager when he wrote it.

ALSOP: Mendelssohn was only 17 years old when he wrote this overture. And the thing that we forget is that Mendelssohn was, really, the next great child prodigy after Mozart. So he had been composing since he was a little tot. And by the time he was a teenager, he'd already written 12 symphonies and five operas. So this was not unexpected. But the quality of this overture and the way it captures Shakespeare's drama...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...Is truly amazing.

SIMON: How did he wind up being a part of this play?

ALSOP: He wrote this overture as a stand-alone piece. But then, later, much later, 16 years later, he was asked to write incidental music for the play as a commission from King William the Fourth of Prussia. And so I don't think you say no to those kind of kings. And he did the incidental music for the entire play, but he went back to his overture and he used it as the DNA for all of the incidental music.


ALSOP: One of the pieces that is often excerpted from the incidental music is called "Scherzo from Midsummer Night's Dream." And this is the piece that really introduces the forest and the idea of the fairies and all the busyness going on with them.


ALSOP: And of course, we're going to be introduced to the wonderful character of Puck, who really is the perpetrator of so much of the mischief on behalf of Oberon. So Puck will get the sleeping potion and puts it on their eyelids so that when they wake up, they fall in love with whomever they see. Of course, Oberon wants to play a trick on Titania, his wife. And so when she wakes up, the first character she sees is Bottom, who's been turned into the ass. So she falls madly in love with him.

SIMON: Yeah, it's been known to happen.

ALSOP: It does happen, doesn't it?

SIMON: It does happen quite a lot.

ALSOP: But these fairies, I think, are - they're characters unto themselves. And they have their own little drama going on. And what Mendelssohn does so beautifully in the incidental music is he creates worlds and gives actual voice to the fairies themselves as singers.


ALSOP: In this number, we can hear these two fairies in the voice of the soprano and the mezzo soprano singing the entire forest to sleep.

SIMON: And then...


ALSOP: And then, of course, there're many dramas going on at the same time. And there're two young couples. One's in love with the other and the other's in love. And now, of course, they've all run into the forest chasing each other and misunderstanding each other.


ALSOP: There's this entire drama going on. And what happens in the story is that Puck accidentally, but of course, puts the potion on the wrong person. So well, you know, one wakes up and falls in love with the wrong one, and then everybody's hooked up to the wrong people. And Oberon gets very angry with Puck and says, look, you really have to fix this mess you've made. So Puck goes back into the forest and finally gets everyone to sleep. And that's the moment when we hear the nocturne, which has one of the most beautiful French horn solos in the literature.


ALSOP: Scott, I think this is one of the few moments of genuine calm in the entire play and in the entire music.


ALSOP: And of course, it's a little bit of a calm before the storm. But finally, things start getting righted. And we can get back to the important things like having the royal wedding.

SIMON: Which introduces, I think, one of the most played pieces of music in the world.


ALSOP: I'm not sure how many people know that Mendelssohn wrote the "Wedding March." But what happened was Princess Victoria used this "Wedding March" for her wedding. It was - I believe in 1858. And it just became part of everyone's tradition. Thanks to the incidental music from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream," we have the wedding march that we use today.


SIMON: Marin, does a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" such as you're about to undertake remind us that this is a major work in each and every dimension, not just the music with which a lot of people are anecdotally familiar.

ALSOP: Well, it has such a reach, doesn't it? My son just attended a ballet performance the other day of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And it's a play that has inspired so many other ancillary artists from different disciplines. And it's a play whose moral rings as true today as it did in the moment. And for me, it's all about the concept of love and love in its - all of its transformations because love never takes that straight line.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: But it's always filled with unexpected detours.

SIMON: But it finds a way.

ALSOP: Always finds a way in the end.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, who is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Their production with the Folger Theater of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with music by Felix Mendelssohn, takes place next weekend. The maestro joined us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much.

ALSOP: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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