Symphony's All-Elgar Program Augurs Well for
by William Thomas Walker
September 25, 2010, Charlotte, NC: There was a big turnout of music lovers in Belk Theater for the first concert led by Christopher Warren-Green, the new music director of the Charlotte Symphony, in his inaugural season. This was a repeat of the opening night concert which was broadcast live by the local public radio station. The scuttlebutt was we were in for something special. Compositions by English composers are about as rare on our state's orchestra programs as those by the French. Warren-Green, a native of Gloucestershire, England, would be expected to remedy that deficiency. The conductor, who adds the Charlotte orchestra to his long-standing music directorship of the London Chamber Orchestra, pulled out all the stops with a program of major works by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and brought in one of the rising stars of the cello world to boot!
Warren-Green's predecessor, Christof Perick greatly expanded and refined the musical skills of the Charlotte Symphony, especially the strings. This was evident in the first work on the program, Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40 ("In London Town"). This was composed when Elgar was suffering a crisis following the disastrous debut of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. The overture is a tone picture of London at the turn of the twentieth century. By turns picturesque, delicate, and brash with vignettes dovetailed into the next like a quilt of patches, it contains a broad, lyrical melody, marked Elgar's trademark "nobilmente." Highlights were the hushed, refined pp strings, the fine horn solo above accompanying strings in a romantic episode, and above all, the wonderfully "English" sound Warren-Green coaxed from the trombones in another episode.
Cellists have been short-changed by the great composers since the Baroque and Early Classical Periods. Besides a slew of concertos from Boccherini and Vivaldi, pleasant-enough, only Franz Joseph Haydn delivered the goods and only two of his survive! None have been left from Mozart, Beethoven, or Mendelssohn. Brahms thought the balance between soloist and orchestra was insurmountable. Thank God for Antonín Dvorâk' Cello Concerto in B minor which still towers over the instrument's repertoire!
Elgar's Cello Concerto is composed on a scale nearly as grand and elaborate as the Czech composer's. Unlike Dvorâk's, work which is in the typical three movements, Elgar's is in four. It opens with a wrenching flourish from the soloist that Michael Kennedy in Elgar: Orchestral Music calls "a splendid, virile gesture which emphasizes the contrast of the movement's main theme, a long, lulling tune." The autumnal, world-weary atmosphere of the concerto reflects the composer's bitter depression in the aftermath of the loss of so many and a way of life following the attrition of the trench warfare of WWI. The second movement follows the first without pause and features a pizzicato version of the cello's introduction to the first movement. The third movement is an intimate, song-like meditation, a near-tragic lament. The finale follows without pause, opening with a cello recitative link to the concerto's opening leading to striking contrasts of moods before plunging into a desolate version of the finale's theme by the soloist.
In the 1960s in a performance and on a classic recording with John Barbirolli, the English cellist Jacqueline Dupré "owned" Elgar's Cello Concerto. Among the ill-fated musician's last recordings was one of the Elgar conducted by her famous husband, the pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim. Warren-Green's stellar soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, has been compared to Dupré and she has recently recorded the concerto with Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic. Both cellists are famous for the emotional and physical intensity they bring to performances. Weilerstein, now in her late 20s, has been frequently heard throughout her career in the region in appearances with orchestras, chamber music series, and across the border, at the Spoleto Festival USA. In her Charlotte performance, some of the excessive, flamboyant gestures of her early years had been reined in but she brought great depth and soul to her interpretation. Her intonation was flawless and her phrasing was breath-taking. Her full, warm tone carried no matter how hushed the dynamic and her plethora of pizzicatos was breath-taking. Warren-Green and his musicians provided attentive and sensitive accompaniment. The rapt-hushed entrance of the viola section following Weilerstein's heart-wrenching opening solo was memorable. Orchestra balance with the soloist was excellent.
Elgar's Enigma Variations, Op. 36 is probably the most frequently performed English composition in our region. The wonderful 9th Variation, "Nimrod," is frequently played in memory of the passing of someone in the arts community. It is nip-and-tuck with Samuel Barber's Adagio for paying tribute. Warren-Green led the orchestra in a solid and stylish interpretation of the piece with every section getting to shine over the course of the 14 variations on the theme. Among the many fine and deeply expressive solos were those given by Concertmaster Calin Lupanu, cellist Alan Black, violist Alice Kavadlo, clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo, along with Frank Portone on horn. The enthusiastic audience was rewarded with a rare encore, "Nimrod."