For those of you who don’t know it already, April is National Poetry Month (yes, they do have a special month for everything). What better time to pick up a piece of work inspired by, and including, the poetry of The Bard himself, William Shakespeare?
Thanks to the group Oberon, you can own a series of songs set to compliment Shakespeare’s famous sonnets. Sonnet is an excellent concept for the literary-minded. The sonnets included on the disc (12 in all) are great examples of The Bard’s non-theater oriented works and are read by four actors who have performed with The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe Theater. For those of you who don’t have literature and theater backgrounds, The Royal Shakespeare Company is the Shakespearean troupe while The Globe is a meticulously detailed reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original theater of Elizabethan times.
It is no surprise that the disc begins with Sonnet 18, better known by its first line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” This is certainly the best known of all Shakespeare’s poetry, and possibly one of the most famous lines of poetry ever written. However, the selection of sonnets is not limited to those that are imminently famous. These poems range in subject from idyllic and worshipful love, the inability to express the full weight of such love, love lost to time, love in dreams, and the triumph of love over death as it is enshrined in art for all time. If this seems like a lot of love, just think of Shakespeare as the pre-eminent pop lyricist. Sonnet 23 and Sonnet 107 are particularly beautiful inclusions here.
Yet this is an album of music as well. Oberon, the project of producer/composer Trammel Starks, is about as close to adult contemporary as it comes. Starks has had previous success in the field of new age, ethereal music with his group Taliesin Orchestra. Here he gathers a similar group of soft-core jazz musicians and the beautiful voice of Felicia Sorenson (featured in films such as Meet Joe Black, The Man in the Iron Mask, and the classic Army of Darkness) to set Shakespeare’s words against complimentary songs whose lyrics echo the theme of each sonnet.
As I said, it’s an excellent idea, but this disc is a little too…something to really be carried off as it should. The best way I can put it is that it’s a little too Kenny G. Maybe dash of Yanni thrown in. The problem with cross-over music, in this case the combination of New Age, Celtic, and jazz, is that it can either work, or sound all too derivative. Oberon falls into the latter category. This can be seen most easily in the song set to compliment Sonnet 18. “Heaven Queen” is a traditional piece from the thirteenth century, sung in its original middle-English. It’s a beautiful tune, sung with clarity and a haunted quality that really draws out the play of the word sounds. Then it descends into a typical soft jazz saxophone that jars the ear. In fact, the saxophone work of Paul McCandless is quite good; not likely to win the respect of Coltrane fans, but good. However, it rises to such a prominence throughout the songs that it evokes the power of cheese.
The clarity and beauty of Sorenson’s voice is also a little bit tainted by the watery emotion of the lyrics, which she wrote. It’s difficult to put Shakespeare’s words up against a modern ethereal tune and have the modern come out looking good. That’s the central problem with this album. It has a tension of authenticity that highlights the divide between the Elizabethan and the modern rather than blending the two. The power and weight of the Shakespearean actors reading Elizabethan verse makes the soft and airy quality of the subsequent songs seem weak. They just can’t stack up against each other. It’s not the fault of Sorenson or Oberon, it’s simply testament to the power of Big Bill.
Because of this, the songs that work the best are the ones that aren’t even sung in English, or at least modern English. The aforementioned “Heaven Queen” is gorgeous until the sax steps in. “Ostinato” is an Italian song from the late sixteenth-early seventeenth century Bartolomeo Tromboncino and perfectly highlights Sorenson’s soprano. The one English tune that sticks out is “Samain Night,” although it’s actually a cover of a Lorenna McKinnet (“Mummer’s Dance”) tune. As I said, it’s difficult to truly judge the Sorenson/Straks tunes because they contrasted so heavily, so I hesitate to question their talent in the face of such a huge task. Perhaps if more of the music was similar to “Renaissance Heart,” the most Celtic-sounding tune on the disc, Oberon would have pulled it off better. It’s just hard to think about Shakespeare set to the music of Kenny G, but if that’s your bag then I’m sure Sonnet will make an excellent addition to your collection.