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Actor, writer and director Michael Pennington is co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov. His one-man shows on Chekhov and Shakespeare have both been enormously successful and his books include Are You There, Crocodile? - Inventing Anton Chekhov, the invaluable ‘User’s Guide’ to Hamlet, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Sweet William: Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare published in February 2012. Dances of Death at the Gate Theatre from 30th May until 6th July.

Sinfini Music, 20th May 2013

Stravinsky - the Rite of Spring

I have to admit that, almost as much as the theatricality and excitement of the thing itself, I relish the scandal that erupted around this when it was first performed in 1913: audience members screaming and beating each other about the head with umbrellas, Nijinsky trying to help the conductor conduct because he couldn’t hear over all the noise, Diaghilev flashing the lights to try to get the audience to shut up. What an extraordinary response to a piece of music! To me this is visual music; even without the ballet. You can see the ritual as much as hear it.

J S Bach - Chaconne in D Minor, from Partita No 2, BMV 1004

This is almost the opposite of the Rite of Spring, which involves an entire company of dancers and numerous orchestra players. Here you have one instrument. At least it’s a man as far as I’m concerned because I know it from the recording by Itzhak Perlman. It’s a love song without words dedicated to Bach’s dead wife and I find it fascinating that the violin is the musical instrument that comes closest in sound to the human voice. You would have thought that an instrument that you breathe into would be closer but actually it’s the violin. It’s about pure distilled emotion expressed within a framework of control and order.

Rachmaninov - “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, Vespers

The opening of this is astonishing - a solo tenor voice emerging from a background of massed soprano sound. Then the basses come in and, it may be a truism, but that room-shaking bass sound does seem to be uniquely Russian. Apparently Rachmaninov was told that finding basses who would sing the music would be as wasy as finding asparagus at Christmas time. The history of it is so interesting because, while Stravinsky was keeping the Russian folk tradition alive, Rachmaninov was keeping a religious tradition afloat. This was written in 1915 and almost immediately, after the Revolution of 1917, it was forces underground when all religious music was banned. It only came to light again in thee 1980s. He wrote this music of deep faith and hope just as his country went into the dark.

Britten - Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

I have a dear friend called Timothy Brown, who’s a marvellous horn player, and is also one of those rare musicians who is happy to talk about music to a non-musician. There was a BBC documentary series that explored particular pieces of music and there was one on the Serenade in which Timothy played the horn and the tenor soloist was Ian Bostridge. Bostridge said that the two instruments most vulnerable to cracking and tiring and being affected by the atmosphere are the horn and the tenor voice. So Britten wrote for both! That may be why there’s such a strong element of danger and darkness in the music. The setting of Blake’s poem ‘The Sick Rose’ is astonishing - the words on their own are sinister and sick and terrifying but with the music they’re shattering.

Strauss - Morgen!

I played Strauss in Ronald Harwood’s play Collaboration, about the composer ad=nd Stefan Zweig, so that was an opportunity to get on better terms with someone about whom I knew very little. I found myself drawn into his world, trying to work out how a man who looked like a bank manager and seemed to live a blamelessly quiet and bourgeois existence could write music of such ravishing lushness and erotic splendour. Morgen! Was written for his adored wife, Pauline, and I love the fact that morgen in German means both morning and tomorrow, so that for the two lovers in the song, tomorrow is the morning on which they walk out into the sunlight and re-dedicate themselves to one another.

Pieces of Me

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