If you pose the question about the place of Edward Elgar in the musical pantheon, you are likely get a conflicting barrage of answers. To some he is that great late Romantic voice who restored “English” as a credible adjective to the noun “composer.”
To others he is only a second tier craftsman, and to others he remains a bombastic, sentimental relic of faded Edwardian grandeur.
Conductor Keith Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra brought their travelling Elgar tribute to Copley Symphony Hall Friday (Feb. 15), making their case for Elgar the master with confident interpretations of his “Enigma Variations” and the Cello Concerto. They also played Benjamin Britten and George Butterworth on this all-English program.
The brand “BBC Concert Orchestra” did not ring an immediate bell, so a bit of internet research uncovered that this ensemble is the smallest of the five BBC orchestras, and the one whose responsibilities include popular repertory. This made it instantly clear why the American maestro Lockhart, Conductor of the Boston Pops since 1995, was recently made Principal Conductor of this ensemble.
From Friday’s performance, it is evident that this BBC orchestra is a disciplined troupe, and their account of the “Enigma Variations” mined is many moods with flare and sympathy to the composer’s expansive melodic signature. I liked the orchestra’s cohesive brass choirs and its supple woodwind soloists, although the strings were bland and their modest number too easily overpowered by the winds. Of course, this imbalance can be adjusted in the sound studios of the BBC, but not in a live concert hall setting.
Cellists admire Elgar’s Cello Concerto because it keeps them front and center most of the time, flaunting gorgeous themes
marvellously suited to their instrument while the orchestra noodles unobtrusively. With the young American cellist Sophie Shao as soloist, it was tempting simply to melt into her sumptuous, silken timbre and elegantly shaped lines. Her sound exhibited subtle colorations evenly distributed throughout the wide range of her instrument, a feat achieved by few cellists.
Because the concerto’s structure is randomly espisodic with individual sections underdeveloped, it left this listener unconvinced. But I can imagine the combination of Shao and, say, Gil Shaham in the Brahms Double Concerto with smashing results.
I was disturbed by Lockhart’s unsympathetic take on Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.” The opening movement, “Dawn,” should virtually shimmer with impressionistic atmosphere, but I found the BBC flutes and strings strident and unforgiving. He unduly pressed the pulse of “Sunday Morning,” instead of allowing it to unfold gently and naturally, like a hazy, seacoast sunrise. The clilmactic “Storm” interlude proved aptly dynamic, but there was little reward on the journey to this climax.
The best accolade I can give Butterworth’s bucolic little tone poem “The Banks of the Green Willow” is that it proved less indulgent than Vaughan Williams in his meandering pastoral odes.
Imagining that his audience needed even more Elgar, Lockhart chose a quiet Elgar slumber song for the encore.
Digging into what the historians say about Elgar, I discovered that one of his major unfinished projects prior to his demise was making an opera out of Ben Jonson’s play The Devil Is an Ass. If only this had come to fruition, we might have an entirely different take on the Edwardian “Pomp and Circumstance” tunesmith.