Orchestral Music Review Print

BBC Concert Orchestra at ECU: Too Brief Two Hours of 20th-Century English Music

January 25, 2002 - Greenville, NC:

When conductor Barry Wordsworth acknowledged the enthusiastic standing ovation in ECU's Wright Auditorium Friday night January 25th and thanked the audience members for their ardor for a full evening of English music that had run from 8:00 p.m. until 10:34 p.m., it was hard to believe the concert had lasted that long. In his recent N.C. Symphony pre-concert talk, Tonu Kalam characterized music as the manipulation of time and our perception of it. A routine or boring short program could seem to last forever and a rare concert where most things had come together in a long program would seem brief. Friday's concert of 20th-century English works proved to be fully satisfying to a general audience and to a critic tired of repetitions of basic repertory. Works of Sir Edward Elgar began and ended the concert, forming a sandwich encasing two rarer works by Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Typically for foreign orchestras even before September 11, the concert opened with the playing of both National Anthems. The ECU audience sang even more lustily than our post-terrorism Triangle audiences, and their fervid applause covered the beginning of "God Save the Queen." Americans and Britons have been described as two peoples separated by a common language. There was an Ivesian collage of "God Save the Queen" chased by "My Country 'tis of Thee" and fragments about "Pilgrim's Pride."

Elgar's "Cockaigne" Overture, Op. 40, opened the program. This celebration of the City of London was, according to the composer, named after "the old humourous (classical) name for London... from [which] we get the term "Cockney.'" The C major melody of the 1901 work came to him while he was touring the Guildhall. While he rejected the idea of a detailed program, there are two episodes that evoke a military band and an "irreverent impersonation of a small out-of-key Salvation Army band." All the string sections produced full sound. The orchestral choirs were well balanced and a very wide range of dynamics was on display from very quiet to stunning. I can only recall one live Triangle performance of Op. 40 and have seldom listened to it on recordings. Much of the orchestration is characteristic of the two symphonies. The strings beautifully phrased the distinctive opening theme, there was fine playing from the woodwinds and brass, the trombones were striking, and a hushed cello figure was memorable.

Performances of works by Vaughan Williams have never been frequent within the Triad and Triangle and probably a third of them came from several tours of the London Symphony under André Previn back in days of the Friends of the College series. Otherwise, Gerhardt Zimmermann and guest conductor Peter Paul Fuchs programmed a few on the North Carolina Symphony's series. The centerpiece of Wordsworth's program was the breathtakingly beautiful Symphony No. 5 in D. Despite the composer's agnosticism, he was drawn to religious texts. This Symphony (and especially its third movement, Romanza) has musical material taken from his opera Pilgrim's Progress , based on Paul Bunyan's book. The opening began quietly with the cellos joined by a haunting horn call. Wordsworth, who had studied conducting with Sir Adrian Boult, phrased the entire symphony most convincingly. The dynamics of the first movement ranged from the soft sounds of the opening and built up to a powerful section dominated by brass, only to end gently with the pp sounds evoking distant horns. The scherzo, darting and whirling, was a delight. The outstanding cor anglais' exquisite melody in the Romanza was breathtaking. The violas were burnished in both this and the concluding Passacaglia, which had a marvelous solo. The hushed epilogue, with the return of the opening themes, produced a long moment of utter silence before hearty applause.

Wordsworth reined in the dynamics of the full orchestra for the post- intermission performance of Elgar's subtle "The Lark Ascending." Too many violin soloists eschew this delightful pastoral work in favor of more blatant showpieces. Remarkably pure intonation and seamless phrasing characterized young violinist Nicola Loud's moving performance. 

An outstanding performance of Elgar's wonderful Enigma Variations brought the concert to its formal close. This was the only work on the program that is scheduled with any regularity in the Triangle and Triad. Indeed, the ninth variation, "Nimrod," has surpassed Barber's Adagio as the work most often chosen as a memorial piece. It was great to rehear the variation in its full context. There were splendid solos from the principal violist and cellist. Wordsworth's interpretation was well within the range of those found in recordings by Boult and Monteux. As a change of pace, an encore of Brahms' 5th Hungarian Dance sent the happy audience into the cold night. During this concert, there was a cough festival between the pieces but virtual silence during the playing except for an occasional sotto voce "that's incredibly beautiful," which certainly was true.

Collectors of inexpensive Naxos CDs will recognize Wordsworth as the conductor of an excellent series of the major symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. I hope area presenters will pick up this orchestra when it next tours the States. 

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A Footnote: Will the Real BBC Symphony Please Stand Up?

I was more than a little confused about just which of the BBC orchestras was going to be at ECU. The flagship orchestra, the BBC Symphony, was founded in 1930 by Sir Adrian Boult. That orchestra, one of London's "big five" (the others are the London Symphony, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia), has a long history of performing contemporary music. Pierre Boulez held its directorship at the same time he held that of the New York Philharmonic. The ensemble that played so well in Greenville - the BBC Concert Orchestra - was celebrating its 50th anniversary, having been founded in 1952. A comparison of its published programs with those of the flagship BBC Symphony reveals that the Concert Orchestra generally offers lighter, more popular fare, which in turn probably made the sophisticated ECU program much more attractive to the players. From a comment quoted by a musician in André Previn's Orchestra , I infer that the BBC Concert Orchestra functions partly as a training orchestra, like the New World Symphony, but with solid radio contracts. For more information on the BBC's orchestras, see http://www.orchestranet.co.uk/orchests.html [inactive 6/04]. 

The London ensembles are hardly alone in this regard. A few years ago, there was worse confusion when the Duke Artists Series presented the St. Petersburg State Symphony. More than a decade before, that series had presented the great Leningrad Philharmonic (now called the St. Petersburg Philharmonic), founded in 1882 and one of the major orchestras of the world. The St. Petersburg State Symphony had established in 1988 and is one of at least four orchestras in that city. It was a decent regional orchestra in no way superior to our own North Carolina Symphony. I know many ticket holders who were disappointed. 

Regardless of the name, ECU got a great concert!