Shakespeare in love

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MONTEVERDI’S Christmas Vespers at Sheffield Cathedral and Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette at Ecclesall Parish Church this Saturday offer opportunities to hear extremely fine, rarely encountered music of widely different styles.

Berlioz’s ‘symphonie dramatique’ is part of Hallam Sinfonia’s 40th anniversary season and the orchestra is performing it with skilled and versatile chamber choir Viva Voce.

“We wanted to do something special in our anniversary year and were looking at a theme for our concerts and hit on Shakespeare,” says Sinfonia chairman Simon Twigge, one of its horn players.

“Having thought about Falstaff (Elgar) and the orchestral version of Romeo and Juliet, we presented the idea to Natalia (Natalia Luis-Bassa, the orchestra’s music director since 2008) who wanted to do the full version of Romeo.

“We were happy enough with that because we had a good local choir to work with and Viva Voce was happy to go ahead with it; in fact, they were very excited about it.”

A highly programmatic work, it was inspired by Berlioz’s infatuation with the actress Harriet Smithson, as his previous and better-known Symphonie Fantastique had been, but adds a choral element taking Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as its model.

The ratio balance between purely orchestral and material with voices is just about the same but deployed differently. The characters of Romeo and Juliet are treated orchestrally and the chorus primarily depict the Montagues and Capulets.

Scored for large forces which are, however, used sparingly for most the work’s duration (around 100 minutes) until the finale, Simon Twigge concedes his orchestra, although having outgrown the sinfonia status of its earlier days, will not be using the full orchestration.

“Every part will be covered but, whereas Berlioz asked for 16 first violins, we won’t be using 16,” he says.

“It’s not just down to cost; it’s also balancing with the size of the choir and gives us both the opportunity to perform the work” – and a rare opportunity to hear it in performance!

So how has Viva Voce coped with its contribution?

“Admirably,” asserts Tony Jones, who has been in charge of rehearsals, without hesitation.

“Many of the singers have had semi-pro experience in opera choruses over the years and can draw on the full range of colour and projection that the score requires from much intimate narrative petite choeur (small choir) to the grand opera style ‘wall of sound’ (at the finale).

“When the choir breaks into two you will see and hear the Montagues and Capulets furiously feuding and taking no prisoners!”

Always one to voice irreverent, tongue-in-cheek thoughts, he goes on: “Some of the vocal writing is a little bonkers (a state of mind sometimes attributed to Berlioz!), but look at the vocal writing in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony!”

In between the thought on the work: “I think it’s nuts – flawed but tremendous fun,” he nevertheless views Saturday’s performance as “a fantastic collaboration with a damned fine orchestra under an inspirational, fiery conductor. I’m really looking forward to it. Bring it on!”

l As last Thursday’s Telegraph went to press we learnt that Firth Hall had agreed to increase the venue’s capacity to accommodate a further 40 people for Sheffield Chamber Orchestra’s sold out Winter Gala this Saturday. Once the extra places have been allocated to a waiting list some will remain, if interested phone (0114) 268 7024, or book via tickets@sheffield-chamber-orchestra.org.uk - advance booking only.