A Versatile Virtuoso: Christopher Plummer

Classic Arts Features   A Versatile Virtuoso: Christopher Plummer
Christopher Plummer brings his artistry to AveryFisher Hall to tell the story of Shakespeare'sHenry V, set to music by William Walton, Sept 17. Lawrence Van Gelder catches upwith the busy actor and music lover.


Something odd will be visible when the New York Philharmonic takes its place onstage at Avery Fisher Hall on September 17. Seated among the violinists will be a distinguished looking gentleman, clad in a light velvet smoking jacket, who will not : repeat, not : be holding a violin. He is the acclaimed Canadian-born actor Christopher Plummer, who will be speaking of William Shakespeare's Henry V and of the vastly outnumbered English forces led by Henry in their great victory over the flower of French nobility at Agincourt on October 25, 1415.

The work that brings Mr. Plummer and Shakespeare to the Philharmonic is Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario, set to music by William Walton and arranged by Christopher Palmer. "A lot of people think, 'Shakespeare, oh my God!,'" Mr. Plummer observes, "but I make sure the audience has a lot of fun."

This historical figure and Mr. Plummer, who turns 82 on December 11, are old friends. "I played Henry V at both the Edinburgh and Stratford [Ontario] festivals when I was 26, and it was a great success, thank God," he says. "I've loved the piece ever since."

He will be portraying not only the king, but also Shakespeare's chorus, the Duke of Burgundy, "a smidge of Falstaff," and Pistol. As Mr. Plummer says, "Of course, in the concert version I manage to play all the parts except for the French princess : which one day I am determined to do!"

"I heard Christopher Plummer perform this narration with The Cleveland Orchestra in 1995, when I was assistant conductor there," Alan Gilbert recalls. "It was remarkable, and has stayed with me because he is such an incredible personality as well as a true Shakespearean : I've wanted to perform it with him ever since." Now the New York Philharmonic's Music Director will do so, marshaling the forces of the Orchestra, the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Choir, and The American Boychoir for Henry V, on a program that also includes the Overture and Bacchanal from Wagner's Tannh‹user.

The origins of Walton's music culled for A Shakespeare Scenario may be traced to the English composer's score for the 1945 film version of Henry V, which earned Laurence Olivier a special Academy Award for outstanding achievement, and through a collaboration in the 1980s between Christopher Plummer and Neville Marriner. The actor recalls: "I think we orchestrated it, as it were, for the audience's pleasure. After a few performances with various orchestras, Christopher Palmer joined us and expanded the work even further."

Mr. Plummer says that "William Walton was inspired by Henry V. He wrote a momentous score, which, of course, achieved classic status immediately." He adds that a great critic once likened the Scenario to a concerto, "because the speeches demand a range of vocal color, particularly in the upper voice when the battle cries begin. The audience is rather enveloped in both the music and the words, because I speak some of the soliloquies over the music."

What led to Mr. Plummer's involvement in this unusual approach to Shakespeare? "I love music," he replies. "I started out loving the piano, but I switched to a more communicative and friendlier profession, because if you would be a pianist, you have to be awfully alone for the rest of your life." Yet he has adapted the role of actor to that of a sort of concerto-soloist: lest anyone overlook Mr. Plummer among the violinists, he says, "When I speak, I get up and wander around and actually talk to the conductor and deliver some of it to the orchestra. "I know the text. It's fun. We have a good time. I think. I hope."

This project is only one in the schedule of the very busy actor. In December he will be seen onscreen as the industrialist Henrik Vanger opposite Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, under the direction of David Fincher (The Social Network), in the English-language film version of the best-selling Stieg Larsson thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Next summer he will appear in an update of his one-person show, My Journey through Literature, which Mr. Plummer describes as "a feast of literature from various stages of my life, from Winnie the Pooh to the Bible, from George Bernard Shaw to Vladimir Nabokov, and the great poets, from Browning to Robert Frost.

"I think it's important to get the message out there that it is awfully important to read books through your life, from an early age."

Shakespeare would doubtless agree.


Lawrence Van Gelder is a retired New York Times culture reporter and contributor to WQXR; he is also a retired adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

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