Thursday, January 18, 2018

Elgar’s great Symphony No.1 triumphs at the Segerstrom


Ray Chen, Michael Francis, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa


Sir Edward Elgar, OM, KCVO (1857-1934).
Asked by host Alan Chapman, at the beginning of the pre-concert talk, for his assessment of Elgar’s Symphony No.1 in A-flat major Op.55, English guest conductor Michael Francis unequivocally called it a “true masterpiece”, noting in his answer to the natural follow-up question that, unlike in America, this symphony is a staple of British concert programs. Mr. Chapman joked that every American knows one piece by Elgar – the use of the “Pomp and Circumstance” tune at graduation ceremonies; though in American concert-halls this may be extended to the Cello Concerto and Enigma Variations, beyond these works Elgar’s music is severely underplayed and little-known in the U.S.A. 

Both in this talk and again when he took up the microphone before conducting the symphony in this concert’s second half, Mr. Francis gave an insightful and eloquent account of its four movements’ emotional narrative – a “massive hope in the future” that ultimately wins through against turmoil and doubt – and how that unfolding may relate to Elgar’s complex personality, describable in modern psychological terms as bipolar. This is represented by the tritone span of three whole tones – the Diabolus in musica (“the Devil in music”) – between the symphony’s nominal key of A-flat major, in which its long and eloquent motto-theme is played at the outset, and the plunge into dark D minor when the turbulent main body of the first movement gets underway.

Michael Francis.
So far so good and explanatory, but how well did Mr. Francis convey his obvious commitment and interpretative insights to an orchestra that had never played the work before? To my ears, the result showed the Pacific Symphony to be more responsive and skillful in their realizing of such an unfamiliar and complex masterpiece than one dared to hope, aided and abetted of course by the glorious acoustic of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. 

That A-flat major motto-theme, played first piano and dolce by woodwinds and lower strings, and then resplendently on the full orchestra, is marked Andante, Nobilmente e semplice. Elgar also gives it a metronome-mark of quarter note=72, but though Mr. Francis conducted it well below this speed (even Elgar’s own remarkably fleet recording doesn’t take it quite as fast as his own marking), the focused concentration of the PSO’s playing avoided any feel of dragging, and the vigorous D minor Allegro that followed came with the proper sense of almost shocking contrast. 

Hans Richter, dedicatee and
conductor of the first performance
of Elgar's Symphony No.1 in 1908.
The symphony’s first movement is not only lengthy (in this account almost 20 minutes) but also complex in the extreme: throughout its expansive sonata design tempi, dynamics, and textures constantly change, a rich harmonic and melodic stew seethes and bubbles, sometimes boiling up, elsewhere simmering and cooling but never still. Mr. Francis’ control of all this was masterly, not yielding to the becalming temptation of its passages of withdrawn beauty, but still giving full value to the emotional highs and lows as well as the progress of the symphonic structure, bodied forth in the ebb and flux of Elgar’s masterly orchestration. 

Both of Elgar’s symphonies are in the “standard” four movements, the middle two in the order fast/slow for the First Symphony, reversed for the Second. After all its far-flung strenuous turmoil and haunting ambivalence, the first movement sinks to a close on the last of its several reminiscences of the opening motto-theme, followed by long-held ppp woodwind chords and a single pianissimo low A-flat plucked on ‘cellos and basses. The ensuing Allegro molto, a scherzo in all but name, springs feverishly out in utmost contrast, building to an implacable fast march. Mr. Francis and the PSO got this exactly right – abrupt and threatening rather than exhilarating – and driven by thrillingly uninhibited fff percussion crashes. This scherzo duly has a trio section, again in all but name, amidst the martial fury an idyll of sylvan reflection, which Mr. Francis made feel appropriately threatened by the return of the fast march. 

Then follows one of the most sublime transitions in all music, the long diminuendo and slackening of tension through which Elgar passes from the Allegro molto into his exquisite Adagio movement. Mr. Francis took this transition pretty slowly, leading to concern that, as in some recordings of the symphony (but not Elgar’s own!), the Adagio would be simply too slow and start to feel interminable. At around 13 minutes it was fairly slow, but the concentration of the PSO’s playing and Mr. Francis’s control carried them safely through. 

The pin-sharp Segerstrom acoustic ensured that the soft bass drum rumble which heralds the turbulent finale was audible as never before (maybe the player’s enthusiasm led him to play it a notch or two above the marked ppp), but the sense of ominous prescience was spot-on. In the later stages of the movement the pair of harps duly made the most of their moment in the sun when, after a heart-stopping return of the motto-theme played on the last desk only of the upper strings (such is the genius sensitivity of Elgar’s orchestration), the finale’s second main theme comes back in a glorious romantic peroration. Then it was all sure-footed progress to the movement’s, and the symphony’s, volcanically positive conclusion. 

Beethoven in 1804 or 1805, shortly before
the composition of his Violin Concerto.
I’d not consciously realized before that both Elgar’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 open with subdued (but portentous) timpani, in the former underpinned by murmurs on the ‘cellos and basses. I’m sure this didn’t loom large in the planning for this concert, but as well as both openings being remarkably original, how they are paced sets the scene for how performances will unfold. 

Thus Mr. Francis’s measured tempo for Elgar’s two soft timpani rolls led to the spacious opening to the symphony already noted, while his pacing of Beethoven’s four quarter-note taps on the D drum, piano and Allegro ma non troppo, equally heralded an expansive performance of the concerto, which came in at around 46 minutes, the first movement alone taking 26 minutes. 

Ray Chen.
For me, this performance by star visiting soloist Ray Chen (to whose participation a good 90% of the Pacific Symphony’s publicity seemed to be devoted) was strangely unmoving, despite the constant stream of perfectly-focused golden tone that issued forth from his 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius. Occasionally Mr. Francis seemed to be trying to inject a little more drama when the orchestral tutti took over, but then the pervasive enervation resumed… until the first movement cadenza. Beethoven left no cadenza for his concerto, so soloists have to choose. Mr. Chen selected one by Jascha Heifetz which may have worked in the context of Heifetz’s own interpretation of the concerto, but seemed horribly and inappropriately florid here. 

The performance, having been dealt something of a body-slam by this choice of cadenza, then received virtually the coup de grâce of having the opening of the Larghetto, surely the most fragile and chamber music-like of all slow movements amongst the great violin concertos, punctured by a group of late-comers being inadvisably admitted when the music had already begun, and effortfully seating themselves near the front of the orchestra stalls. But somehow the professionalism of all on the stage held it together… 

The finale began properly jubilant and propulsive, and included plenty of characterful woodwind playing, but somehow it too felt in imminent threat of running out of steam. Nonetheless, Mr. Chen’s numerous admirers in the audience clearly loved his performance, and were rewarded with a virtuosic encore – Paganini’s Caprice for solo violin Op. 1 No.21 (i.e. not the one that all those sets of variations by other composers have been based on). 

After this, will the Pacific Symphony invite Mr. Francis back to conduct Elgar’s equally great Second Symphony? Let’s hope so. I would certainly welcome it instead of, say, a few more superfluous Mahler Firsts or Thirds or Fifths. And I wonder whether Mr. Chen has ever played Elgar’s Violin Concerto? Heifetz did, and recorded it. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, January 11, 2017, 8 p.m.
Images: Elgar: Reginald Haines/Getty Images; Michael Francis: Marco Borggreve; Hans Richter: Encyclopaedia Britannica; Beethoven: Josef Willibrord Mähler; Ray Chen: Tom Doms/LA Times.

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