Elder conducts, lectures on three English composers

By Anne Lovering Rounds

“Interesting” is a loaded word. Though its literal senses are harmless enough, and can even be flattering (when it means noteworthy, relevant, or outstanding), nuances of euphemism often come with it. That is, a sort of spoken ellipse will enter the voice, an indicator that we’re trying hard to be tactful under the circumstances. “It was…interesting,” I would say of Tom Jones’ cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.” Real meaning: Tom Jones is definitely not outstanding, and he’s no substitute for Mick Jagger.

Keep all the meanings of that word in your head as you read this sentence.

The first half of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concert on Friday night was interesting.

As the concert was about to begin with three obscure English orchestral works, guest conductor Mark Elder turned to address the audience. In perfect Oxbridge tones, and with the dry humor that makes Britain’s sitcoms far superior to anything on American primetime TV, he admitted that Britain was known to its continental neighbors as “das Land ohne Musik,” or “the country without music.” We laughed. (That reputation doesn’t just apply to composers; I found myself remembering the liner notes from a recording of English pianist John Ogden, which opened with the pre-emptive declaration “British pianists are rarely winners.”) Relishing his role as conductor-professor, Elder went on to discuss the context behind Vaughan Williams’s music (accompaniment for the first Cambridge production of Aristophanes’s comedy), the inspirational poetry behind Butterworth’s piece (according to Elder, “the most telling work inspired by Housman”), and the pastoral nostalgia in Delius’s music. Before the orchestra played a single note, Elder brought the auditorium the aura of a college lecture.

Despite its witty introduction, something in the program was lacking. It wasn’t Elder’s fault: he was refined and lovely, as well as engaging, at the podium. Nor was it the orchestra’s, they were attentive. When he took bows after the Butterworth and the lengthier Delius, Elder looked exhausted and proud, and he had good reason to be: conducting a first-ever performance must be stressful, and the orchestra played with integrity, from the quadruple-pianissimo string opening of “Shropshire Lad” to the lush, tutti ending of “Brigg Fair.” But in place of the nostalgia and wistfulness Elder told us we would feel, I felt baffled by the harmony and frankly bored with the melodic meanderings. Wouldn’t a maestro and an ensemble rather spend that kind of energy on Brahms? Or, if you want trendy and obscure, Lutoslawski? Busoni? Stockhausen? No? Interesting.

Although Richard Strauss is more mainstream than Butterworth et al, Professor Elder also did a small exegesis on the Domestic Symphony, the post-intermission fare. Calling it a “hymn to marriage,” he explained that Strauss had written the piece for his wife and son–to the shock of contemporary audiences, who felt that the drama of the bedroom should have been left there. Elder waxed eloquent about the “tempermental foils” and “tormented relationship” of the Strausses, as well as the work’s “symphonic discourse.” They should have given Core credit for this.

Elder could easily have spoiled the music to come by discussing its significance to death beforehand, but the performance that followed transcended his little allegorical outline. The Strauss family story became irrelevant as the chimes delineated each pseudo-movement and the dissonances echoed from the full brass section. (They got their own bow.) In the final part, the timpanist fooled the listener time and time again, nearly providing the bass motion of a final cadence but–at the last possible second–providing the impetus for unexpected modulation. The orchestra provided a rich Strauss that hearkened back to Beethoven, a symphony where the pre-performance anecdotes took a back seat to the music itself, an experience far, far meatier and enjoyable than any piece that had preceded it.

At the start of the evening, I couldn’t help wishing that I could hear the Zehetmair quartet concert as well. They were playing Schumann, Bartok, and Cage at the same time in Mandel Hall, and had the CSO concert’s order been reversed, I might have been even more wistful. Leaving the hall with the taste of Vaughan Williamized Aristophanes in my mouth, I would have longed for chamber music. Instead, I felt privileged to have seen a little of Elder’s musical taste, to have heard the symphony premiere two little-known works with absolutely sincere musicianship, and to have heard a Strauss that will keep me thinking for the rest of the week about symphonic discourse.

Schubert, the master of the song, is said to have remarked that he wouldn’t be satisfied with a melody until he heard the postman whistling it. In that case, Strauss as well as dark horses Butterworth and Delius have a little further to go. Was this concert entirely riveting? Maybe not. But interesting? In the best sense, very much so.