Giving British music fair hearing

Music review

May 19, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Oscar Wilde observed that the English and the Americans have everything in common except the language. He might also have excepted the music.

Folks on these shores have never been wildly fond of most British composers. Other than graduation day, audiences don't go in for a lot of Elgar; Delius and Walton are pretty much fringe composers here, mainstream ones there.

Strange. It's not like there's a level of difficulty or lack of melody in their music that makes listening a chore. Maybe it's just some sort of latent resentment over that unpleasantness on these shores in the late 1700s.

The National Symphony Orchestra and music director Leonard Slatkin have made a determined effort to correct the situation by offering a three-week British Festival. From the disturbing "War Requiem" of Benjamin Britten at the start to tonight's lighthearted finale (a re-creation of the famous "Last Night of the Proms"), the fest has provided an inviting sample of the repertoire.

A case in point - Thursday evening's program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which included two U.S. premieres and one of Elgar's most ambitious and personal works, the Violin Concerto with soloist Hilary Hahn.

Scottish-born James MacMillan's 1994 "Britannia" packs snippets of an Elgar march, an Irish reel, honking horns, duck calls and Lord knows what else into a 10-minute span. Although there are a few moments of calm reflection, the score serves primarily as a noisy, cheeky, kinetic curtain-raiser that celebrates the British Isles. Slatkin and the NSO had fun with the piece; the concertmaster's fiddle solos sizzled nicely.

Steve Martland's 1991 "Crossing the Border," for small string orchestra, owes a good deal to minimalism, though it has a darker, more stringent edge than the typical piece by Philip Glass or even John Adams. Periods of loud, pulsating motives are interrupted by sudden drops in volume and intensity; contrasts in string tone are limited, but telling. The whole thing goes on a little too long, but much of it exerts a hypnotic pull.

The performance sounded a rehearsal or two shy of honing, but the stamina and drive of the players, spurred on by Slatkin's obvious confidence in the music's power, offered compensation.

The 1910 Elgar concerto has an element of the confessional in it. The extraordinary dedication reads (in Spanish, no less): "Herein is enshrined the soul of ..." The composer did not reveal who the soul was; we know now that it was a longtime woman friend and the affection they shared, despite his marriage.

Nostalgia and sentiment hang in the air, especially in the finale, when themes from the first movement keep coming back in haunted phrases. The sense of not wanting to let go is palpable.

The way Hahn approached the music, with her trademark beauty of tone and elegant phrasing, suggested that Elgar's relationship with his friend was entirely innocent. Perhaps it was. Strongly individualistic touches were not in abundance as the violinist moved through the score, but the sweetness of her playing hit home.

Slatkin, who had the orchestra pouring out a vibrant, cohesive sound, allowed plenty of breathing room, yet kept the long concerto from sprawling or sputtering. Elgar's Edwardian sound world cast its distinctive spell.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.