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PROGRAM

 

BUTTERWORTH: A Shropshire Lad; Rhapsody for Orchestra (1912)      
Performed on November 5, 2018 at Crouse Hinds Concert Theater
Lawrence Loh conducting  

 

ELGAR: Concerto for Violoncello, op.85, E minor        
Performed on February 15, 2020 at Crouse Hinds Concert Theater
Lawrence Loh, conducting; Julian Schwarz, violin

 

NIELSEN: Symphony No.4, op.29 (The Inextinguishable)
Performed on November 5, 2018 at Crouse Hinds Concert Theater
Lawrence Loh conducting

PROGRAM NOTES

BUTTERWORTH: A Shropshire Lad
This evening’s concert opens with a tone poem by George Butterworth (1885–1916). Inspired, like much English music of the time, by the poetry of A. E. Housman, it’s a pastoral rhapsody with an overlay of both nostalgia and regret, perhaps stemming in part from what some commentators have claimed was Butterworth’s closeted homosexuality. Whatever its psycho- logical sources, though, this is one of the most poignant quarter-hours of British music you’ll hear, with a muted kinship to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a timbral refinement that, via Butterworth’s friend Vaughan ...
BUTTERWORTH: A Shropshire Lad
This evening’s concert opens with a tone poem by George Butterworth (1885–1916). Inspired, like much English music of the time, by the poetry of A. E. Housman, it’s a pastoral rhapsody with an overlay of both nostalgia and regret, perhaps stemming in part from what some commentators have claimed was Butterworth’s closeted homosexuality. Whatever its psycho- logical sources, though, this is one of the most poignant quarter-hours of British music you’ll hear, with a muted kinship to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a timbral refinement that, via Butterworth’s friend Vaughan Williams, echoes the finesse of the French impressionists. And although A Shropshire Lad was composed before the war, it’s hard not to hear it as a premonition of the composer’s impending death, especially since the work ends with a forlorn flute, quasi lontano (as if from a distance), calling out a fragment of Butterworth’s song-setting of Housman’s “With rue my heart is laden // For golden friends I had.”

ELGAR: Cello Concerto
The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra composed in 1918-19 by Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934). The regret is easy to understand. First, it was nourished by Elgar’s recognition of personal mortality: he had just gotten out of the hospital when he began it, and his beloved wife Alice was dying of lung cancer as he wrote it. Second, there was his growing realization that, having briefly been the standard-bearer for modern English music, his renown was fleeting—that in the wake of the radical works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others, his Edwardian idiom was increasingly scorned as old-fashioned. Most important, the First World War had destroyed the Europe— indeed, the world—that he knew. Whether it was a conscious intention or not, the Cello Concerto turned out to be his farewell to composing; although he wrote a few snippets afterwards, this was his last substantial work.

Elgar was right that the Europe he knew was gone, but he was wrong about his own place in the musical pantheon. Fame operates in pendulum swings, and Elgar’s world-wide reputation is now, perhaps, even greater than at any point during his life. And in the century since its premiere (a disaster, like the first performances of so many masterpieces), the Cello Concerto has become a staple of the repertoire. It’s written in four movements (two sections of two movements each). And from the very opening—a plaintive recitative by the soloist with barely any orchestral support, followed by a theme introduced by the darkly tinted orchestral violas—it’s got, in conductor Larry Loh’s words, “what we love about Elgar, his ability to write heart-wrenchingly beautiful melodies.” As it follows its course, the concerto goes through a wide gamut of emotions (most profound in the third-movement Adagio); and it gives the soloist, especially in the rapid-fire second movement, plenty of room for virtuoso display. But even in the heroic affirmation of the final pages, ushered in by a return of that opening recitative, the nostalgia lingers in the air. In the aftermath, it’s easy to understand why it has come to be seen as perhaps the great 20th-century cello concerto.

NIELSEN: Symphony No. 4
Our closing work, the Symphony No. 4 (The Inextinguishable) (1914–16) by Carl Nielsen (1865–1931), could not be more different—rugged where Butterworth’s is supple, defiant where Butterworth’s is yielding, extreme where Butterworth’s is modest. Like A Shropshire Lad, the Nielsen Fourth may well have some personal history behind it—it was written at a difficult time in his marriage. But it’s more clearly reflective of the state of the world and of Nielsen’s belief—more stubborn than simply optimistic—in the ability of the human spirit to prevail. As he puts it in a preface to the score, the title “The Inextinguishable” reflects “in one word what the music alone is capable of expressing to the full: The elemental Will of Life.” And he expresses that elemental will with a harmonic language that, as conductor Larry Loh points out, is completely individual.

In four continuous and thematically linked movements, the Fourth does not take long to announce its fundamental spirit—and to announce two of its key structural underpinnings. It opens with a furious series of cries in the woodwinds, echoed by fortissimo timpani thwacks. A minute and a half later, though, the orchestra announces a contrasting theme, which begins with downward-moving thirds on the clarinets, marked espressivo. The timpani, as we come to discover, do not serve simply as a punctuation mark. They are a crucial part of the musical argument. After a deceptively simple pastoral intermezzo (almost Brahmsian in spirit, and largely scored for winds) and an intense “Poco Adagio” (dotted with what some hear as bird calls), the finale is marked by an epic battle between two sets of timpani, placed on opposite sides of the stage. They compete, largely in canon, for dominance with what Nielsen calls a “menacing character,” which they are asked to maintain to the very end. And that theme that first shows up in the clarinets turns reappears in many guises throughout the symphony, and caps the triumphant, if hard-won, E major conclusion.

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