Elgar’s Second Symphony at the 2015 Proms

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The BBC Proms are in full swing in London. The annual summer series, featuring over 70 concerts at Royal Albert Hall, has been a magnet for music lovers since 1895 when the British Empire stretched across the globe. It’s a joyful and inclusive cultural event that wipes away any hint of pretension. In addition to reserved seating, inexpensive standing-room tickets are sold, inspiring one conductor to describe the Proms as, “the world’s largest and most democratic music festival.”

On September 12, the festival culminates with the iconic Last Night of the Proms, a unique event which blends stately British pomp and circumstance with the noisy, boisterous atmosphere of a slightly rowdy party. Here is a clip of Sir Edward Elgar’s arrangement of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s patriotic hymn, Jerusalem (a setting of the poem by William Blake), from the 2012 Last Night of the Proms. 

A few weeks ago, Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra presented an exhilarating performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony at the Proms. Before each movement, in the clip below, Elder outlines the work’s autobiographical origins. Completed in 1911, the Symphony is outwardly dedicated to King Edward VII, who died the previous year. Elgar’s close friend and confidant Alice Stuart-Wortley and the death of another friend, Alfred E. Rodewald, seem to have provided deeper inspiration. In the score, Elgar makes a passing reference to Tintagel on the rugged coast of Cornwall in Southwestern England. It’s a location which similarly inspired Arnold Bax (1883-1953) to write this tone poem. The other significant extramusical reference in the score is a quote from Song, one of Shelley’s final poems, written in 1822:

Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
‘Tis since thou art fled away.

These are all interesting autobiographical details…clues to what was going on in Elgar’s mind as he wrote the Second Symphony. But put all of this aside, and you have pure music that stands on its own without a program. In the end, these details are not what make this music truly great.

Elgar’s Second Symphony is constructed with small motivic cells which seem to be restlessly and persistently searching for a way forward. These musical building blocks combine to create music which unfolds over the long arc of time. Dense chromatic harmony occasionally teeters on the edge of losing a tonal center. It’s a celebration of orchestral virtuosity, regal English majesty, and upward sonic sweep. The end of the first movement almost seems to take flight. But there are also moments where we suddenly find ourselves in a haunting and more intimate landscape. These unguarded, and sometimes troubling, glimpses of truth seem always to be lurking beneath the surface. The calm repose at the conclusion of the final movement is one of these moments. It’s not the triumphant climax we might have been expecting, but it’s the only way this symphony could have ended.

  1. Allegro vivace e nobilmente 2:27
  2. Larghetto 21:55
  3. Rondo 38:05
  4. Moderato e maestoso 48:46

  • Find the Hallé Orchestra’s recent recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony, conducted by Sir Mark Elder on Amazon.
  • Find the Hallé Orchestra’s classic recording, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli on iTunes.

A La Bohème Masterclass

51af882584fdd556b9e8dc86894435dcOpera, with its rich blend of music, drama and staging, is one of the most complex art forms on the planet. If you’ve ever been curious about the myriad of subtle details that singers encounter as they bring an opera scene to life, watch the clip below from a young artists’ workshop at London’s Royal Opera House. Conductor Sir Mark Elder coaches soprano Susana Gaspar and tenor Michel de Souza in Marcello and Mimì’s duet from Act 3 of Puccini’s lushly romantic La Bohème. Along the way, we gain insight into Puccini’s music.

La Bohème doesn’t open with an overture. Instead, a sudden, exhilarating burst of energy launches us into the first scene set in Marcello and Rodolfo’s modest and chilly flat. As Elder mentions, this music originated in Puccini’s student composition (and Milan Conservatory thesis), Capriccio sinfonicoThe first Act culminates with the intimate duet, O soave fanciulla, sung here by Teresa Stratas and José Carreras in a 1982 Met production.

Watching great singers up close is a reminder that opera singing, by nature, is an athletic endeavor. A tremendous physical effort is made to look easy. In this respect, there’s a side of opera that is pure sport. But, in this masterclass, Mark Elder takes us beyond the mechanics and challenges us to hear the small details that make the drama of La Bohème come alive:

How to Sing Rossini

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Conductor Sir Mark Elder shares some interesting insights on the music of Rossini in this recent masterclass at London’s Royal Opera House. Elder coaches mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, who sings Rosina’s cavatina, “Una voce poco fa,” from Act 1, scene II of The Barber of Seville. 

According to Elder, rhythm is the key element of Rossini’s music. The energy of the rhythmic motor keeps the music alive and infuses it with style. Pulse equals life. Elder shows how the combination of elegance, strength and boldness in the introduction instantly establishes Rosina’s character for the audience, before a note is sung.

“Una voce poco fa” is about subtly ruthless determination and seduction. Rosina is confined in the house of the elderly Dr. Bartolo, whom she is supposed to marry. Count Almaviva serenades her from the public square below. Rosina hears only his voice, and falls in love. The Count has disguised himself as Lindoro, a poor student. He wants to be sure that Rosina doesn’t marry him for his money. Read the full synopsis here.

Here are Rosina’s final lines:

Yes, Lindoro will be mine
I’ve swore it, I’ll win.
I let be ruled, I let be guided
I’m obedient, sweet, loving
I let be ruled, I let be guided
But if they touch where my weak spot is
I’ll be a viper and a hundred traps
before giving up I’ll make them fall

Here is a concert performance from 1997 featuring Elder and Slovak coloratura soprano Edita Gruberová:

Here are a few more links:

The Hallé Records Vaughan Williams

CDHLL7540This month, conductor Sir Mark Elder and the Manchester, UK-based Hallé Orchestra released the latest in a series of recordings of the music of twentieth century English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The recording includes Vaughan William’s Pastoral SymphonyFantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” and The Wasps Overture. You can browse through the orchestra’s extensive discography here.

The Hallé’s long association with the music of Vaughan Williams extends back to the mid-century tenure of conductor Sir John Barbirolli, a friend and champion of the composer. In 1956, Barbirolli and the orchestra gave the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony.

Written in 1910, the hazy and ethereal Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is built on an English Renaissance hymn melody. Listen to Tallis’ original music from 1567, “Why Fum’th in Fight?” here.

This music is spacial. A string orchestra is divided into three antiphonal sections (the full orchestra, a smaller group made up of the first stands of each section, and a string quartet), evoking the sections of a pipe organ. Listen to the way this piece seems to float through time, moving to unpredictable places and capturing a sense of mystery:

A Pastoral Symphony was completed in 1922. Its title doesn’t refer to the serene English countryside. Instead, the music can be heard as an elegy to the dead of World War I. Listen to the first movement here.

Overture: The Wasps was written in 1909 as incidental music for a Trinity College production of Aristophanes’ play. You may hear occasional echoes of a future Hollywood film sound in this music.

Le Corsaire at the Proms

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Let’s celebrate the end of the week with Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture. The high voltage performance below, featuring Sir Mark Elder conducting the Manchester (UK)-based Hallé Orchestra, is from this past summer’s BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall.

You can take the significance of this overture’s name with a grain of salt. Written in 1844, it was first performed under the title, La tour de Nice. Then it was renamed Le corsair rouge after James Fenimore Cooper’s 1827 novel, The Red Rover and again renamed The Corsair after Lord Byron’s poem. Berlioz also published articles and provocative music criticism in the newspaper, journal Le Corsaire.

Le Corsaire starts off with a bang, instantly grabbing our attention with a swoosh of virtuosity. Like so much of Berlioz’s opium-influenced music, there’s something slightly schizophrenic and deranged about this overture. It keeps us off balance, harnessing the power of the unexpected. Rhythmically, it seems on the edge of spinning out of control, with notes frequently appearing on the “wrong” beats. Notice the strange, parallel harmony (1:31) and sudden interjections (3:58).

Berlioz expanded the orchestra (trombones and tuba, for example) and mixed instruments in bold and innovative new ways. In the passage beginning at 4:47, listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments. Also pay attention to the obsessive repeated rhythm in the strings (later picked up by the chirping woodwinds) and the unpredictable bass interjections. There’s a sudden new dimension to the sound as the cellos double the violins at 5:00, but like everything else in this overture, the new sound emerges and then, suddenly, it’s gone, like an opium-inspired vision.

It’s all resolved with an earth-shatteringly powerful exclamation point. Elder brings out the trumpets for this final chord. You’ll see them raise their bells for added volume.

Howard Hanson, America’s Neglected Romantic

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY
The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

This Wednesday, May 7, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie will be performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the final Spring For Music festival. Since 2011, Spring For Music has showcased North American orchestras and innovative programming. After this year the festival will end due to lack of funding.

The RPO’s decision to present a concert performance of twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount, is significant. Hanson (1896-1981) was the long-time director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He is widely credited with building the school into one of the world’s finest music conservatories. Industrialist George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, established the Eastman School in 1921 and founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.

As a composer, Howard Hanson’s conservatism made him a rebel. At a time when dissonant, atonal music was in style with the establishment, Hanson wrote music rooted in melody and harmony. His Romanticism blended the Nordic sounds of Grieg and Sibelius with the wide open spaces of America’s Great Plains (Hanson was born in Nebraska). As a result, Merry Mount, based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Puritan oppression, was enthusiastically received by the Metropolitan Opera audience in 1934 (a Met record of 50 curtain calls), but was panned by most critics. Listen to a suite from the opera here and listen to a rare excerpt from the February 10, 1934 Met production here. Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony recorded the complete opera for Naxos.

With Hanson’s Merry Mount, the Rochester Philharmonic revives a neglected score and honors its rich history, which includes such notable conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman and Sir Mark Elder.

The facade of the Eastman Theatre bears the inscription:

For the Enrichment of Community Life

The words are a reminder that orchestras and music education belong to everyone. The joy of hearing a full orchestra never goes out of style. In each community, our challenge is to create, preserve and build on legacies such as George Eastman established in Rochester.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”

Here is the first movement of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, performed by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Pay attention to the way Hanson mixes the instruments of the orchestra to create unique colors (the expectation-building opening is a good example). Throughout the piece, you’ll hear conversations between voices (the horn, flute and clarinet 1:57-2:14 in the last movement).

Hanson’s music seems to have influenced Hollywood film composers (John Williams drew upon the last movement for E.T.), but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “movie music.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear music which deserves to be taken seriously:

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Here are the second and third movements from Leonard Slatkin’s equally excellent recording with the Saint Louis Symphony. Common motives and themes are developed throughout all three movements. For example, you’ll recognize the motive from the first movement at 1:40 in the second movement. In the climax of the final movement, themes from the entire symphony are blended together.

Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 can be described as a celebration of harmony and orchestral color in all of its subtle beauty. Out of style in the mid-twentieth century, Hanson’s music may come to be appreciated more with time.