It was North Carolina weather at its spring finest for this early May performance ending the concert season for the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Jim Waddelow joined forces with the Women’s Theatre Festival, produced by Rowen Haigh Mahoney, for an afternoon mixing spoken text of Shakespeare, with one instance of Sondheim inspired by the Bard.

Classical composers have been using William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets as source material for musical works since the Baroque era, and the plays themselves included music from time to time. As a result, there was much to choose from for this concert.

It is important to note that while all the actors were women in this presentation, in Shakespeare’s time, all female parts were performed by boys in drag and were generally less fully developed than the male parts.

The first piece was the familiar Merry Wives of Windsor Overture by Otto Nicolai. The orchestra had fun with this one, and played with vigor and accuracy, with good balance. After the music, Nan L. Stephenson recited a speech from The Merry Wives of Windsor given by Mistress Page, reading a letter from John Falstaff that annoyed her no end. Lesson: it is difficult to disguise lechery as affection, and when one fails in the attempt, the blow-back can be frightful.

There had been some last-minute changes in the order of music and recitations that did not make it into the program, so the rest of the concert took some unscrambling from the printed page to figure out what was actually happening. (This was not helped by a blackout preventing the last of the weekly rehearsals for the RSO.)

Next up was Lucinda Danner Gainey with King Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V – one of those God-and-Glory inspirations to fight. Never mind what the English were doing to the French during the Hundred Year’s War, and why. It is a rousing fine speech. This was followed by “Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips” from Suite from Henry V by William Walton. This music was arranged in 1963 from the film score of 1944, a production to boost morale during WWII and starring Laurence Olivier. The speech was delivered in a rather sedate manner, given the text, and the music in this suite was likewise the slow restrained sections.

This was followed by Amy Arnold with a soliloquy by Romeo, followed by Hector Berlioz’ “Love Scene” from Romeo and Juliet. Although the orchestra played well, this particular selection was overly long, and the composition (in the ears of this reviewer) was on the dull side. This is a large-scale choral symphony, so clearly some of the parts were covered by the keyboard, as the RSO is not big enough for the full orchestration.

Then we had the only singing on the program; Anita and Maria’s duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” from West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, modeled after Romeo and Juliet. This was sung by Abigail Jordan and Ann Forsthoefel. There is a real tussle in performing West Side Story; it was designed originally for singers with minimal training, certainly not operatic voices, and it worked very well that way in the original Broadway production. As the years went on, it became more and more the province of classically-trained singers, until the last recording with Bernstein conducting was so over-the-top high opera that it is hard to listen to. That dichotomy seemed a bit in evidence here, with Jordan’s voice somewhat more in the manner of the original intent, while Forsthoefel’s more in the operatic tradition. Both singers did very well. It was rather too bad that instead of being backed up by the orchestra, the duet was accompanied on the electric piano by S. K. Chipley; while her playing was fine, this was an opportunity lost.

The singers were followed by the orchestra playing a medley of tunes from West Side Story. The score is certainly a handful, and the RSO took it on in good style, with a dynamic and invigorating performance. Considering the attenuated rehearsal schedule, this was all the more impressive.

After intermission, Rebecca Jones recited a speech given by Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, followed by “Hornpipe” and “Intermezzo” from incidental music for the same play by Eric Wolfgang Korngold. He wrote this music at the invitation of the Vienna Burgtheater in 1918 when he was only 20 years old, originally for a small pit orchestra; there is also a version for violin and piano. Korngold went on to have an illustrious career in Hollywood.

The evening would not be complete without Shylock’s famous rant from The Merchant of Venice, delivered for us by Jennifer Suchanec in a rather restrained version. (It is hard to beat the one found in To Be Or Not To Be, the 1942 Jack Benny movie.) Taken by itself, it is a remarkable statement for tolerance; the play as a whole, not so much. This was followed by Gabriel Faure’s “Nocturne” from Shylock, incidental music and suite for tenor and orchestra, performed here without singer.

Joanna Herath gave us an excerpt from Emilia in Othello, followed by the orchestra playing “Ballabili” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. This is a short ballet written by Verdi in 1894 for the Paris performance of the opera, used as part of the ceremony of welcome for the Venetian ambassadors in the finale of Act III. The Paris Opera required ballet in every opera, whether it made sense or not, rather like the dance scenes in Bollywood productions.

Camille Watson took the stage with Helena’s speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; as you might imagine, it was inevitably followed by the ubiquitous “Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn (whose name was misspelled on the scrambled program) from his incidental music for the play.

This was an enjoyable concert and quite well performed; a fitting end to the season for the RSO, which continues to improve its quality and stature among area orchestras.