'Songs of Shakespeare'

For four centuries, composers have set William Shakespeare's words, songs and sonnets to original music.

The Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, under the direction of Paul French, will present its annual "Songs of Shakespeare," a program of choral arrangements inspired by Avon's bard, on the Elizabethan Stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"All of the pieces include text by Shakespeare," French says. "There's text from the plays, songs from within the plays and musical settings of the sonnets."

The concert is set for 8 p.m. Monday, July 12. A pre-concert lecture by Ed Wight will be presented at 7 p.m. in OSF's Bill Patton Garden.

French says he has a collection of about 300 choral settings of Shakespeare texts in his library. His research comes from all over the world.

"It's a big selection to choose from," he says. "We present obscure pieces from off the beaten track, and we commission music. It would be hard to say what the highlights of the show will be. I like them all."

French chooses the music for the annual concert, and Shakespeare scholar Barbara Rosen selects readings that fit the pieces. Then the two work until a script transpires.

The concerts alternate songs by the choir with readings by actors, this year's lineup being Robin Goodrin Nordli and Michael Elich of OSF and OSF alumnus Jim Finnegan.

For example, the opening selection for Monday's concert will feature Elich reading "Orpheus with his Lute" from "Henry VIII," followed by the choir's performance of "If Music Be the Food of Love" from "Twelfth Night." Only the title phrase of the latter song belongs to Shakespeare. Classical composer Henry Heveningham wrote the remaining lyrics, and Jean Belmont wrote the musical setting.

"Belmont is one of today's leading American composers of choral music," French says. SORS also commissioned New York composer Martha Sullivan in 2009 for three Shakespeare songs, "O! How Thy Worth," "And Bring Your Music Forth" and "Who is Sylvia?" The three works by Sullivan premiered at SORS' spring concert and will be repeated at its upcoming show.

Other works set for the concert include portions of "Sir John in Love," inspired by the comical Sir John Falstaff of three Shakespeare plays, written by the late English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Pieces by contemporary English composer Philip Lane and Matthew Harris — another New York City composer — also are slated for the show.

The premiere of "What is Your Substance?" a new musical setting of Sonnet 53 composed by Jodi French, will close the program and feature Debra Harris of Ashland on flute.

SORS will celebrate its 25th anniversary throughout 2011. One of the highlights next year will be a performance of Bach's "B minor Mass" in May.

French is passionate about his work with SORS. "People want to be touched by these concerts, and I feel fortunate to work with so many talented, creative singers," he says. "What's more important than putting beautiful music in the air?"

Tickets cost $18, $5 for students with valid identification and are available online at www.repsingers.org or by calling 541-552-0900. Tickets also are available at Paddington Station and the Music Coop in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford or at the door.

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