Composer/pianist Steve Dobrogosz (1956) is American-born and classically-trained in America. He settled in Stockholm and became much involved in the vibrant jazz scene there, producing many fine songs. Considered to be an excellent melodist, his work is often compared to that of Gershwin and Cole Porter. His recorded choral works include a Mass and a Requiem.
The Opus Project Choir Foundation in Leeuwarden, Netherlands performed the Mass and Requiem in 2007 and suggested to the composer that he should write an oratorio. Dobrogosz found inspiration in the Sonnets of William Shakespeare, composing the two-hour 'My Rose' in only 4 days. The world première of 'My Rose' was conducted by Anne Sollie in the Netherlands. He set this as a project for the Opus Project Choir Foundation, putting together an ensemble, choir and soloists for the performance and subsequent recording.
Remarkably few composers have used Shakespeare's Sonnets as texts, probably being intimidated by their historical importance and the celebrated quality of their poetry. Igor Stravinsky set Sonnet 8, "Music to hear", in his Three Songs From William Shakespeare; Benjamin Britten set only one sonnet by Shakespeare, Sonnet 43, as the last part of his 'Nocturne'; Andrzej Czajkowski set seven sonnets. Maurice Johnston, an English composer and secretary to Sir Thomas Beecham, set Sonnet 75 "So are you to my thoughts". Erich Korngold's 5 Lieder includes "My Mistress' Eyes", Sonnet 130. In 2007 the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned a major new work by British composer Gavin Bryars, a 40 minute piece featuring 8 Sonnets performed by contemporary musicians and actors. The band Zehnder recorded Sonnet 30 on their CD 'Broken Train of Thought'. Aliud also have a jazz album involving the Sonnets (The Shakespeare Album - Ilja Reijngoud Quartet)
Steve Dobrogosz's new work is by far the most ambitious in the field. It uses no less than 15 Sonnets, taken from the first group of 126, all of which are addressed to a man, the unknown but high-born youthful object of Shakespeare's passionate love (before he turned to 'The Dark Lady' of the later sonnets). As do many Shakespeare experts, Dobrogosz regards the sonnets as universal affirmations of human love, and he dedicated 'The Rose', itself a potent Elizabethan symbol of love, to his wife. The chosen Sonnets reflect a wide range of aspects of love, both positive and negative.
Dobrogosz refers to 'The Rose' as "A Shakespeare Oratorio", using the term in its secular form (after Schumann) as a lengthy work for orchestra and chorus with solo voices, although there is no recitative as such. A medium-sized chamber orchestra, with brass, tympani and piano was engaged by Sollie and the Netherlands Project, together with the Project Opus Choir of around 50 mixed voices and soloists Barbara van Lint (soprano), Cindy Oudshoorn (alto), Rein Kolpa (tenor) and Martijn Sanders (bass).
The musical style of the Oratorio is contemporary fusion; Dobrogosz seamlessly moves between his basic neo-Romanticism and other styles, including Broadway musical theatre, Jazz, Blues, Negro Spiritual and even American Folk - in the shape of a Hoe-Down. Its most striking features are the sheer beauty and fecundity of melody, the sensitivity and subtlety of his word-painting (which captures the mood and underlying meaning of Shakespeare's verses), and provision of substantial lyrical, atmospheric instrumental preludes and postludes which attach to each vocal item. Of course, there is music already embedded in the rich Elizabethan language of the Sonnets, which Dobrogosz clearly relishes, being inspired by this as much as the content; modernising but never compromising the texts.
A case in point is the very opening of 'The Rose': entitled 'And sorrows end' (Dobrogosz adds his own titles to the verses). This is Sonnet 30, and its pensive and gentle discontent with life is introduced by a small group of strings, intertwining melodies touched with melancholy. They join the other strings and support the clear voices of the unaccompanied choir, punctuated with comments from the lower strings. The words 'my dear' are sung with great richness of scoring and warmth of harmony, and are repeated thrice. In the final lines, the Poet realises that mere thoughts of the beloved restore all losses, signified by choir and orchestra blossoming with warmth and joy at the piece's climax.
The second track is 'Overture', perhaps a humorous sequencing. This orchestral interlude is wonderfully played, with misty shimmering strings and plaintive wind solos that evoke the essence of an English landscape of haunting beauty, distilled by the shades of Vaughan-Williams, Bridge, Delius and Butterworth. The music broadens to Broadway, then melds into Gershwin's soft, slinky, languid Jazz style, with a soulful trombone solo that could have come from Porgy and Bess. An exquisite idyll.
This thorough-going collage of styles is held together by several effective devices; there are several memorable motifs or tunes which recur with slight variations from time to time, changes of style are often signalled by a few notes hinting at the new style, and stylistic transitions are endowed with original touches of orchestration. Throughout, conductor Anne Sollie keeps the tempi flowing but flexible, especially in the rhythmic chant-like choral settings, and has superb control over the precision choral interplay of the hoe-down (Disc 2. 'Lips to Kiss', Sonnet 128). Several of the Sonnets are suitably set as Blues, and here Sollie flexibly encourages the artistry of his instrumental soloists and excellent vocal soloists. The vocalists themselves are not operatic in timbre; they sing naturally in contemporary style, although seem sometimes to be uncertain whether or not to use American pronunciation. In general, the English of the chorus and soloists is excellent and their diction clear.
Lightness of heart and humour abound in the Sonnets, and there are some fine examples here; the lilting ostinato of ''Like to the Lark' (Sonnet 24), a hilariously pompous march from the wind instruments signifying the vagaries of fortune in 'Marigold' (Sonnet 25), and a full-throated, up-tempo foot-tapping Negro Spiritual for 'Lips to Kiss '(Sonnet 109). Of course there is a setting of perhaps the most famous Sonnet, no. 18, "Should I compare thee to a Summer's day". Here, shimmering strings portray the heat haze of a sultry day, and a bluesy clarinet solo with piano underpins the rapt and hushed tenor soloist.
Jos Boerland's full DSD recording is up to his usual high standard; transparent with a natural perspective and atmospheric surround channels. The soloists are not spotlighted, and every detail of Steve Dobrogosz's highly inventive score comes across, as does the artistry and enthusiasm of all the performers. Their level of commitment is a tribute to the pleasure it must be to sing and play this new score, which is undoubtedly a beautiful and richly rewarding piece of contemporary music. I could hardly imagine that a more devoted or skilful presentation would be possible.
'My Rose' is music which should be accessible to a wide range of music lovers. Hopefully, Shakespeare lovers will also find rewards in the respect and sincere emotional response of Dobrogosz to the Master's poetry. A set which lingers long in the memory and which gives much pleasure at every hearing.