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BachSoc and Hamlet’s “unanswered question”

Theo Breen '14

You likely read Shakespeare’s Hamlet in high school, watched Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Hamlet on film or heard a reference to the indecisive young prince’s infamous interrogative, “To be or not to be?” But have you ever encountered the dramatic tale of the indecisive young prince in orchestral form?

Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra will set the stage 8 p.m. Saturday Oct. 12 at Paine Hall with Hamlet, Sergei Prokofiev‘s operatic exploration of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Prokofiev’s Hamlet is the final piece for a lineup that also includes works by Bach, Mendelssohn and Charles Ives.

Though the program is an eclectic collection of pieces spanning a wide range of classical eras and styles, Theo Breen ’14, BachSoc’s music director, had a unifying theme in mind when choosing the repertoire.

“The overarching theme of the concert is setting the stage, and setting the stage in different ways,” says Breen, “I was very careful to choose a program that not only included well established pieces, but also ones that cover a wide range of classical music.  I wanted to give the audience an eclectic potpourri, but there’s a thematic unity that contributes to the program’s accessibility.”

For Ives’s The Unanswered Question, a solo trumpet repeatedly poses “The Perennial Question of Existence,” while the woodwinds and strings attempt to respond. William Tobias ’16, the featured soloist, describes this phenomenon: “I play this

William Tobias '16

unanswered question, and the woodwinds do their best to answer but they never manage to. So you end up with a cacophony where none of the notes fit together and none of the questions end up answered.”  A perfect compliment, it seems, to Prokofievs exploration of Hamlet’s own question of existence.  “I’m most excited about the pairing of The Unanswered Question with Hamlet, Breen says.

Breen hopes that BachSoc’s first concert will set the stage for the orchestra’s upcoming year. The program has been designed to appeal not only to aficionados of classical music but also to the greater community. “Classical music is no longer an elite genre,” says Breen. “This isn’t just music for a very small echelon of high society. My hope is that the concert will convince people that they can still be engaged with classical music the way they can still be engaged with Shakespeare.”

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