CSO’s music is the thread that links everything in ‘Romeo & Juliet’



If a normal Saturday evening at Chautauqua Institution means going to see the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra perform in the Amphitheater, this Saturday night will be a bit different.

Ninety-two performers will join the CSO this Saturday for the debut performance of The Romeo & Juliet Project. The project is big, complex and packed with artistic expression.

There are dancers from the North Carolina Dance Theatre and Chautauqua School of Dance. Singers from the Chautauqua Opera Company and the School of Music’s Voice Program are also represented. Instrumentalists from the School of Music will play Duke Ellington compositions in a small jazz ensemble. Equity actors will work alongside actors from the Chautauqua Theater Company conservatory.

In the middle of the project is the CSO and its guest conductor, Timothy Muffitt.

“The CSO, the orchestral component, is the thread that really links this all together,” Muffitt said. “It is the responsibility of the conductor and the orchestra to provide the momentum and to get the wheels in motion, and keep them in motion over the course of the evening.”

The CSO will perform more than 40 musical selections from classical and not-so-classical interpretations of William Shakespeare’s famous story of forbidden love. This includes the ballet Romeo and Juliet, by Sergei Prokofiev; the opera Roméo et Juliette, by Charles Gounod; the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, by Hector Berlioz; the symphonic poem “Romeo and Juliet,” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; and the musical West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein.

“It’s a huge jigsaw puzzle,” said Marty Merkley, Institution vice president and director of programming. “It’s just an adventure unfolding by the hour.”

Merkley said that the CSO has two rehearsals for the performance. Their last is the dress rehearsal this afternoon, which will also be the first time all of the performers are onstage together.

It’s enough to make any performer nervous. So much could go wrong, from staging fumbles to artists getting off tempo. Muffitt said that despite all the pieces of the project being assembled separately, he has confidence in everyone.

“The singers, the dancers, the actors, the instrumentalists are just top-notch professionals and artists,” Muffitt said. “There’s an element of the unknown. We’re all kind of excited about unwrapping the package and seeing what it really is.”

There are two questions Muffitt and the rest of the artistic team asked when they put the project together: How is the raw material selected, and how is a given moment in the drama interpreted by the varying artistic sensibilities of the composers and writers?

Careful analysis of the program’s selections can reveal interesting patterns that cross disciplines and time periods.

In Shakespeare’s original tragedy, Juliet tells Romeo that “palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” Maria and Tony from West Side Story dream of their future wedding in the song “One Hand, One Heart.” Muffitt believes that Stephen Sondheim, the musical’s lyricist, undoubtedly was paying homage to the original text when he wrote the song’s lyrics.

One of the Prokofiev ballet pieces has a particular rhythmic motif. That pattern can also be found in Bernstein’s “Tonight Quintet” near the end of West Side Story’s first act.

Muffitt said that these are just two small examples of the program’s pieces flowing together.

“[It’s] kind of like looking through a prism,” he said. “There are many different refractions of the Shakespeare story.”

The Romeo & Juliet Project is the largest collaborative artistic effort in Institution history. Muffitt said he would love to see this effort inspire other artists to take on such a challenge.

“This is like an opera on steroids,” Muffitt said. “It’s music and drama, but all of those elements are highlighted to the nth degree.”