By Stephen Cohn
The BBC Concert Orchestra performance at The Valley Performing Arts Center was an evening of firsts for this concert goer: the first time I have experienced the new Valley Performing Arts Center, the first time I have heard the BBC Concert Orchestra live and the first time I have heard a British ensemble play a whole evening of music composed by their countrymen. All are now on my list of items to be repeated after attending this Valentine’s Day evening event.
The Great Hall of the Valley Performing Arts Center has an elegant, futuristic exterior that one might expect to see in a big budget, Hollywood, Utopian, Sci Fi film. I was immediately drawn to explore the venue inside and out – it brought back memories of seeing the Music Center and Disney Hall upon first visits. Entering the lobby, I was struck with the Flemming Grand Staircase which is enclosed with glistening, clear panels. It gives the impression of a crystal pathway ascending to another plane. Entering the interior, one finds a state of the art, aesthetically inviting auditorium with blond acoustic paneling. The room, which seats 1700, is one of the wide rather than deep, halls so that no seat feels distant from the stage. The result of all this, as I was to experience, is extraordinarily clear, present, uncolored acoustics. Every note of the performance, from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo was clearly discernible and undistorted from my mid-distance, center seat.
The BBC Concert Orchestra, in their traveling platoon, is a medium sized, virtuosic ensemble under the solid and elegant direction of Maestro Keith Lockhart (also conductor of the Boston Pops). This Northridge Concert was one of the last stops on their current tour of the US. The energy and discipline of this orchestra were very apparent as was that amazing phenomena that happens when a really excellent symphonic ensemble seems magically unified in performance and very much in trusting consonance with their conductor. The textures they forge have a stunning range of colors and dynamics – all tasteful blended with a clarity that was complimented by the hall.
The program opened with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten (1913–76). The four pieces are instrumental episodes taken from Britten’s opera which was premiered in London in 1945. They are described by the composer in his working copy of the libretto as: Dawn (an) “Every-day, grey seascape”; Sunday Morning as “Sunny, sparkling music”; Moonlight as “summer night, seascape, quiet”; and Storm as “Storm at its height.” It is instructive to note that the composer’s intention from this description was to emulate a series of moods of the sea rather than to tell a story about it. The atmospheres he characterized in his notes were apparent in the music: bursts of orchestral color which were more textural than thematic in nature - i.e., evocative orchestrations, presented episodically, rather than the development of melodies appeared to be the underlying principle of design. The harmonic language was the most contemporary of any compositions on the program. It was on the line between tonality and more modern systems. Much of the material sounded familiarly tonal but the structural use was more coloristic than functional. The work was a great way to begin, as the contrasting dynamics; tempos and textures demonstrated the virtuosity and rich sound of the orchestra while also offering some connective insights between British music and music from other locations during the period. From this perspective, Britten was a communicative composer, emotionally attuned to his audience.
Following was the Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1918–9) by Edward Elgar (1857–1934). Cello soloist Sophie Shao joined the orchestra on a platform between the conductor and the concert mistress. For many of us, this work is associated with Jacqueline du Pré who, along with Daniel Barenboim, popularized this work both in performances, which can still be seen on You Tube and in the 1998 movie, Hillary and Jackie.
The orchestra is used sparingly in this piece. The four movements are quite short and none are in a fully traditional sonata allegro form. There were a number of instances, particularly in the second movement where a large melodic leap in combination with a modulation were unmistakably Mahleresque (for moments, I was in the Adagietto of the 5th) – and apparently, this perception comes up in writings about Elgar frequently. However, the timing of the two composer’s lives and careers doesn't lend itself to the probability of cross pollination or influence – so it may have just been what was in breath of the muse at the moment of creation of the concerto. The piece is unabashedly heartfelt and in spite of the sophistication of the writing, there is simplicity in the statement which seems focused on direct emotional connection with the listener. Elgar’s music sounds like it is clearly part of the tradition of communicating human spirit and emotion rather than experimenting with the language as were some of his contemporaries, like Stravinsky and Berg, at the time the Cello Concerto was written.
The work begins with a solo recitative which returns in several forms and, bringing us full circle, is the final statement of the last movement. The orchestration, although containing great contrasts is, for the most part, quite transparent, leaving a great deal of dynamic space for the soloist. Ms. Shao made elegant use of this space with courageously soft, lyrically expressive passages and very full, rich, assertive ones that filled the auditorium. Throughout, her performance was confident, soulful and both her sound and her stage presence spoke of an artist who is one with the music. The sensitivity to the unfolding of the cello/orchestra dialogue between Ms. Shao and Maestro Lockhart was as moving as it was intriguing.
Following intermission, the program opened with The Banks of Green Willow (1913) by George Butterworth (1885–1916). Butterworth’s life is a poignant story of great promise cut short by one of man’s self-inflicted tragedies: war. He was born in London in 1885 but grew up in York as his father became the General Manager of the North Eastern Railway. However, he got his advanced education at Eton College and Oxford University and while there, hung out Ralph Vaughan Williams and became involved with collecting traditional music. When First World War broke out in 1914, he joined the army and was killed in action on the Somme in August 1916. His lifespan of thirty one years is almost exactly the same as Franz Schubert. However, unlike Schubert who was prolific, Butterworth got a late start and left us with only a dozen or so works. The most performed of these are, A Shropshire Lad, a set of songs, and two orchestral works, Two English Idylls and The Banks of Green Willow. Many historians refer to him as one of the most gifted composers of his generation. It’s painful to think of what treasures we might have if he had survived the Great War.
The Banks of Green Willow is based on two English folk songs: the work’s eponymous folk-ballad and the Lincolnshire folk song Green Bushes. It opens with a solo clarinet playing the title theme and then blossoms into lush orchestral settings with contrasting solo passages for flute, oboe, and violin supported by quiet strings or, in one case, simply harp. It is a beautifully crafted work. The composer would have been wonderful with film scores given the opportunity. This work, which contains evocative pastoral counterpoint is also very dramatic - alternatively romantic, poignant, noble, pensive and unabashedly gorgeous. I was taken with the way the composer was able to make inevitable sounding transitions between short, very contrasting sections – so that the flow was seamless across leaps from sparse to fully orchestrated and from emotion to vastly differing emotion. The overall effect was a rich, colorful gestalt, enhanced by the orchestra’s obvious depth of understanding and passion for the music.
The last composition on the printed program was Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’) (1898–9.) Much has been written about this work for several reasons. It was Elgar’s first symphonic work in the Theme and Variations form, which invited comparisons with the Classical masters. His personal and sentimental approach to the form, however, is what gave the piece its lasting value and appeal. The keyword in the title, Enigma, has also been a provocative hook for music historians who have provided many theories about what the enigma is. The basic structure is a theme and fourteen variations. Each variation was inspired by a person who had an intimate association with the composer and the music that came out of this was motivated by something personal between the composer and the inspirer. The first variation honors his wife and the last is a self-portrait. Regarding the title, the composer said: “The ‘Enigma’ I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played …
One historian has advanced the theory that the enigma may be love since it was the composer’s connection to all the people who are represented. My take on the composer’s statement is something I've come across in the study of composition: an integrative principle is adopted by the composer but is never exposed in the music – it’s more like a silent guide for the composer which unifies everything written under its criteria without ever being stated in the composition – this could easily be concurrent with the love hypothesis – they are not mutually exclusive.
The variations are arranged in an order in which contrast appears to be a high value priority…and the varieties of contrast run from tempo to dynamic to mood to texture. Regarding the “apparent connection between the Variations and the Theme” - in the opening bars of the theme, there are several melodic intervals of a downward minor seventh, stated rather subtly. This melodic progression recurs in many of the variations, most prominently in the Nimrod where the progression is made into a repeating, ascending sequence which is the heart of every climax in this very emotive and most frequently performed variation from the composition… it was dedicated to August Jaeger, the man who edited Elgar’s’ music and was his closest and most trusted friend. The ending, self-portrait variation is dashing, even swashbuckling, as one would find at the climax of a high quality adventure film score with shades, also, of a nineteenth century heroic opera overture – it’s wonderfully noble, inspirational, explosive and climactic. Although Elgar’s style is not easy to categorize, this work is romantic in nature but with Elgar’s brand of very direct, deceptively simple communication – there are many elements of the late Romantic Period with some markers that are pushing the envelope.
The orchestra brought their full passion, wit and tenderness to this odyssey with a meticulous reading which appeared to be a celebration of the work of an acclaimed countryman.
With the audience on their feet, after three returns to the stage by Maestro Lockhart, we were granted a perfect dessert for the concert, Touch Her Soft Lips and Part by Sir William Walton from his score for the film Henry V. This is a truly heartrendingly beautiful, romantic and tender, short piece for the string section only. Harmonically, it draws on Impressionism but has more of the aura of a sophisticated pop ballad with a disarmingly intimate melody. Maestro Lockhart had his strings play pianissimo throughout the work as if it were being whispered into a lover’s ear. It was a perfect ending for a Valentines Evening Concert.
All in all, it was an inviting and rewarding introduction to the BBC Concert Orchestra, The Valley Performing Arts Center and an enticing insight into British Composition.