Elder leads CSO in a neglected Elgar masterpiece

Fri Mar 04, 2016 at 12:27 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Sir Mark Elder conducted the CSO in an English program Thursday night.

Sir Mark Elder conducted the CSO in an English program Thursday night.

One stared at the program for this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program in disbelief. Can it really have been 33 years since Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 was last played in a subscription concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

Perhaps that lack of local familiarity with this magnificent work accounted for the sparse attendance Thursday night at Orchestra Hall for the all-British program led by Sir Mark Elder.  

The English conductor showed himself a fully sympathetic interpreter of his compatriot’s music with the CSO performance he led of Elgar’s Second Symphony six seasons ago. In his introduction, Elder spoke with great affection of the First, rightly calling it a masterpiece to be ranked with the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms.

Elgar’s symphony is cast on an epic scale, spanning over 50 minutes. The winding, long-limbed theme that opens this work seems to embody the rich lyricism and strain of melancholy that characterize the English composer’s finest music.

For casual listeners–particularly on this side of the Atlantic–Elgar is thought of primarily as the composer of works of Edwardian swagger, like the Pomp and Circumstance marches. The formal dignity and public occasion seem to be reflected in Elgar’s photos with his major-general bearing and expansive mustache.

Yet as Elder noted, the self-taught English composer was a sensitive, passionate man, qualities surely reflected in the First Symphony. The symphony is imbued with a restless energy, whipcrack orchestration and a deep vein of nostalgic lyricism in the Adagio, one of the most gloriously beautiful slow movements in the literature.

Thursday night’s performance took a while to jel, with playing that was polished yet oddly external, perhaps reflecting the orchestra’s lack of exposure to Elgar’s distinctive idiom. (Every woodwind principal was off this week except bassoonist Keith Buncke, which likely didn’t help.)

Yet Elder brought out the surging ebb and flow  of the opening movement, as well as the nerve-wracked agitation of the scherzo with vital playing from the orchestra.

The performance started to find its footing halfway through the Adagio, with Elder pacing the ebb and flow of Elgar’s long lines with great sensitivity, and the players responding to the deep emotive expression. The dramatic finale sealed the performance with the motto theme emerging triumphantly in Elgar’s best nobilmente style over the hurly-burly that tries to check its progress.

The concise first half of the program offers two works by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Elder led a more vividly characterized reading of The Wasps Overture than the usual amiable curtain-raiser with a violently angry nest of stingers, and a rich presentation of the broad Holstian theme.

Vaughan Williams turned to his favorite inspiration of English folksong for Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus,” a set of variations on the title ode. Here too, Elder led an idiomatic reading of this pastoral work, bringing out the stoic sadness of the source material, aided by gentle expressive solos from Robert Chen and John Sharp.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Elder leads CSO in a neglected Elgar masterpiece”

  1. Posted Mar 05, 2016 at 1:00 pm by Tod Verklärung

    In the back and forth about CSO programming on this site (including Mr. Johnson’s comment on the woeful attendance at the Elgar Symphony #1), I have not seen mention of an important item. Perhaps the dilemma of filling the seats is a consequence of giving too many concerts. No less than Alan Gilbert, NY Philharmonic Music Director, was recently quoted saying so.

    When I began to attend CSO concerts in the mid-1960s, subscription programs were given only Thursday through Saturday. The entertainment landscape of the time did not include Netflix, cable TV, the internet, a widely expanded theater scene, and computer games. Could it be that the attendance problem is, at least in part, due to an increased supply of concerts for which there is no demand, as well as the presence of much competition?

  2. Posted Mar 07, 2016 at 3:37 pm by Odradek

    Just to comment on the above comment, I attended Saturday’s performance and it looked pretty well attended from where I sat. The Elgar also got a very enthusiastic ovation.

    I do think you have a point about too many concerts, or more specifically, too many repeats of the same program. One might be able to fill seats more successfully if a program were played 1-2 times rather than 3-4 times. We need more “one-offs.”

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