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Monday, March 29, 2010

Elgar and Chopin at MSO

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This weekend’s Milwaukee Symphony concert gives us a chance to hear the magnificent Symphony No. 1 by Edward Elgar (1857-1934), last played here in 1994. The self-taught son of a music shop owner, Elgar rose from poverty in the early 1880s to be recognized 20 years later as the greatest English-born composer since Purcell.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899) propelled him to international fame. Richard Strauss recognized him and the great Wagnerian conductor Hans Richter championed his work. Acclaim in Germany helped him finally attain recognition in his own land—a fact that gained painful irony when a family spat between Queen Victoria’s grandchildren turned Europe into the slaughterhouse of World War I.

In 1901 he wrote his famous Pomp and CircumstanceMarch, invariably played at graduation ceremonies in America but regarded as a national anthem in England. The title was taken from a line in Othello: “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!" In 1902 a lyricist added chauvinistic words so that the tune could be used at the coronation of Edward VII. It then became a popular song.

The vast carnage of World War I made Elgar hate Pomp and Circumstance and the jingoistic lyrics attached to it. So many millions marched to their deaths to such grandiloquent anthems. But his two symphonies, concertos and so much of his other music stand free of official co-option. Of his First Symphony, written in 1908, Elgar said: “There is no program beyond a wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.”

A thrilling work, brilliantly scored, it begins with a calm and noble andante that builds in volume and intensity before launching into faster, wilder territory. The bustling second movement alternates a dark Mahlerian march with lilting carefree passages and magically transitions without pause into the heavenly adagio slow movement. The fourth movement finale excitingly works its way toward a climactic triumphant restatement of the symphony’s noble opening theme against surging waves of orchestral sound.

National pride can be beautiful when it doesn’t morph dangerously into international arrogance. The spirit of Poland is strong in the music of Frederic Chopin (1810-49) and permeates not only his polonaises and mazurkas but all the music he wrote during his short life. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. This weekend his Concerto No. 2 will be played by Garrick Ohlsson, the only American to ever win first prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition. The exquisite slow movement is an excellent example of why Chopin is known as “the poet of the piano.”

Edo de Waart will lead the MSO in Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 2-3.

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