This is a year to have fun with Shakespeare, and the Madison Early Music Festival is no exception.
The festival, now in its 17th year, is presenting a full week of Elizabethan music at UW-Madison from July 9-16 to help mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.
Sunday’s offering in Mills Hall, for example, includes the screening of a silent, 1912 Sarah Bernhardt movie about the legendary Queen Elizabeth I, monarch during Shakespeare’s time. The film will be accompanied by live period music from the acclaimed Chicago-based Newberry Consort.
Tuesday night, the visiting Baltimore Consort is scheduled to perform some of “the greatest hits of the Bard’s songbook.”
In other concerts, Shakespeare will be celebrated in both words and music.
The idea “is to be part of a worldwide celebration,” said Cheryl Bensman Rowe, a founder and artistic director of the Madison Early Music Festival. “It’s not just happening in Wisconsin — it’s happening all over.”
Across the globe this year, theater groups, literary groups, libraries and countless others are taking part in celebrating four centuries of Shakespeare’s legacy, still very much alive and well. Events are happening throughout Wisconsin, culminating with the arrival in Madison this fall of a precious copy of a First Folio of plays by Shakespeare, to be displayed at the Chazen Museum of Art.
So it made sense for the Madison Early Music Festival — which since 2000 has transported players and listeners into the musical past for a week each summer — to go all out with the theme, said MEMF program director Sarah Marty.
The festival, a program of the UW Arts Institute, provides specialized workshops for professional and amateur musicians throughout the week. More than 90 participants, ranging in age from their teens to 90s, are expected this year.
MEMF also welcomes the public with a Festival Concert Series in Mills Hall, located in the UW-Madison Humanities Building at 455 N. Park St. Evening concerts are preceded by a lecture, and are designed for a broad audience, Marty said.
Sunday’s concert, for example, will likely draw both fans of Elizabethan music and silent movie buffs — “An interesting mix, right?,” Marty said. The showing of the Bernhardt film “Les amours de la reine Elisabeth” (“The Loves of Queen Elizabeth”) will feature music performed by a Newberry Consort violin string band and acclaimed soprano Ellen Hargis.
Poetry and music will both be center-stage Friday evening with “Sonnets 400,” 40 of Shakespeare’s finest sonnets with selections of music by Anthony Holborne played on recorder and lutes. On Saturday, festival musicians will perform “Shakespeare’s Musical World: A Day in the Life of Elizabethan London,” a program created and directed by Grant Herreid exclusively for MEMF.
The summer festival selects a different historic time period to focus on each year. This year stands out because so much Shakespeare-related music already is woven into our everyday lives — whether we realize it or not, said MEMF co-founder and artistic director Paul Rowe.
“I think a lot of it will sound familiar,” Rowe said. “Audiences will hear a lot of familiar songs that we hear every day now in movies and on TV.”
“I think it’s interesting that every educated person (in Shakespeare’s day) was expected to know how to dance, how to play music,” Bensman Rowe added.
“Shakespeare used so much music in his plays,” she said. “It’s nice to connect it all together.”