find out more about our triumphant family concert
earlier this summer at Turner Sims

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
presented & illustrated by James Mayhew

2016 commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and – not to be ones to miss out on a celebration opportunity – són brought their innovative approach to one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This marked the first in our family concert series, bringing amazing music, art and story-telling to the younger generation, introducing them to classical music in a fun and alternative manner – engaging more than just their ears in the experience.

As a pre-concert event, Turner Sims was taken over by the Southampton University Players for a performance of Bottom’s dream, a great way of introducing Shakespeare to our audience and starting off the day’s celebrations. The play brought everyone out onto the lawn in the sunshine (for once the British weather pulled through) and gave a taste of the magic to come.

Alongside this, the foyer was a hive of activity, with plenty of specially commissioned arts and crafts to involve the children and adults. Some of the players even got their faces painted for the occasion. For this we have to thank Antonio Reche, who not only engaged the children in creating their own fairy wings, but also created and put together James’s fantastic costume.

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At 3pm the concert began in the hall – lights darkened so as the artwork could be clearly seen on the huge projection screen above the orchestra. Children and adults listened and watched, entranced by an hour long extravaganza of Purcell and Mendelssohn, enlightening us to the images that Shakespeare was imagining when writing his iconic comedy.

June 18th was a particularly exciting day for us because it was our first full collaboration with our Artistic Advisor, James Mayhew. For those of you who don’t know about James, he’s an established and much-loved children’s writer and illustrator – creating the Ella Bella Ballerina stories and Katie books. However, James has also been presenting classical music to a live audience for over a decade, so we brought him to Southampton to paint alongside our lovely orchestra, and bring his magic to the city’s audience, young and old.

It was great to see such a huge crowd on the day, especially because this was our first outing together. Not only did James very kindly raffle the paintings we’d all witnessed him bring to life, but he also engaged in an exclusive book signing.

We asked James Mayhew a few questions about his work.

You have been involved in illustrating classical music for over a decade now, it was clear to me that the audience loved this aspect of the concert, why do you think it has such a big effect on the performance?

“I think there are many reasons, actually, because different people take different things from any experience, but I think that matching live music with live art does create a certain connection. The art can highlight musical refrains, develop with a crescendo, follow the rhythm, and even use colour to represent sounds. It’s really quite a discreet accompaniment and, with the context of a story, I think it stops music from just being “a nice tune” to being something more meaningful. Of course, a huge amount of time is spent choosing repertoire that is more likely to benefit – generally “programmatic” music – and then developing images that are both appropriate to each composer’s intentions and which can be choreographed to match the ebb and flow of the music.

I try to paint in a way that does not reveal the composition immediately as well. The paintings may appear almost abstract at first, and only come into focus and make sense as the music develops. So there is a development in the art underlining the development in the music.

How important is this type of event to getting families, and particularly children, interested in orchestral works?

It’s essential! There are lots of great events around the country and most orchestras take education and family audiences seriously now. This is wonderful, and it’s so heartening to see family proms with big audiences. But actually there are not many that present fuller works as I do with són, and I think that is extremely important. “Lollipop” concerts, with a few “greatest hits” and some “movie themes” are great fun, and have their place. But I am especially proud of the work I have done with Robin Browning, at introducing longer pieces and richer repertoire with integrity and imagination.

Children can, and will, listen to a longer piece if presented the right way. The music has more power, and children (as well as parents) experience better the full emotional potential of great music when it is in context.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Wedding March is a typical “lollipop”. Everyone recognises it. But it’s far more resplendent when part of an extended suite of complete music, as we performed in Southampton.

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As a children’s author, you are obviously aware of how all the arts are linked – do you think these types of concerts are a good educational tool?

Absolutely! Apart from inspiring children to take up an instrument, we are also inspiring children to be part of an audience – something I don’t think is given enough importance. Not all children will become a musician, but all children can appreciate and enjoy music. Using programmatic music also educates in terms of stories: myths, legends from all over the world, it’s very diverse; and Shakespeare too, seen from a different angle.

But it also educates musicians. I sometimes get players saying: “I’ve played that for years, I had no idea that is what the music is about!”. Because musicians are concentrating on notes, perhaps it takes someone who isn’t, who understand the stories and the inspiration, to bring that into the mix. If I was a musician I probably wouldn’t be able to do it.

I think the art is educational too. There is nothing digital or perfect about what I do, sometimes it’s a real rush to finish a picture in time. But children see that, and it’s funny. And they see some techniques and effects. They go home thinking: I could do that. And they often do! I get sent fabulous pictures by parents sometimes. They are also learning about geography, history: it’s so rich. Art and creativity can’t be squeezed into little boxes, it bursts out and stimulates all the senses.

We are planning more family concerts with you in the future, promising more Mayhew magic for Southampton. Do you think you’ll be able to create an even better concert than this one?

Well, I hope so! Of course anything in the future will be very different, because the music would be different. But the great thing about projects such as these with Robin and són is that they’re so varied, and they build and grow. I learn more techniques, the audiences learn to listen more, my relationship with the players gets better… as we explore different repertoire… it’s a three way thing: we are all giving and sharing and communicating. I’m very lucky. I love my job!”

Thank you James, for all your thoughts and insights.

We also spoke to són Artistic Director and conductor, Robin Browning, who described his initial expectations for the concert and how the afternoon spectacularly exceeded them . . .

“Before we chose this programme and invited to James to join us for our very first family concert, we knew it would be a big hit with Southampton and Hampshire audiences. What we could never have known was quite how incredible the afternoon was, from beginning to end, and how amazed the audience were – not just the youngsters, far from it!

What was your reaction to the day? You must be pleased after how much work went into organising it!

After the dress rehearsal, walking around the Turner Sims foyer, I was stunned by the hive of activity – over an hour before curtain up – including a throng of children making fairy-wings, and a huge number of people milling about, many with gorgeous painted faces clutching programmes and activity sheets. It made me smile, and I knew we were bringing something truly positive to Southampton. And then the pre-concert theatre began, with over 100 people sitting on the lawn creating an impromptu amphitheatre for Shakespeare, all segueing perfectly into the concert hall and the main performance. I can’t wait until we can bring James back to perform again with són.

The overwhelmingly positive response to our summer concert is evidence that innovative concerts make classical music accessible to all ages. They also enable us to show off the many facets of our orchestra, giving us the chance to reach out to potential new audiences everywhere. Our ‘Midsummer Magic’ brought people from all over Southampton, and across Hampshire, to enjoy various interpretations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream during this special anniversary year.”

If the first són family event was anything to go by – in fact all our concerts throughout this, our debut year – then the coming season is set to be even more spectacular for són. We’re currently adding the finishing touches to our performance diary for 2016-17, and will launch the new season officially soon.

Be sure to keep in touch with all our performances, education workshops and family events – sign up for són eNews and follow us on twitter, facebook and instagram. Keep in touch, too – we’d love to hear your views!

Sophie Hart
són Creative Intern

August 2016

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