Pearson's Falls NV

Pearson's Falls NV
a return trip to Pearson's Falls - pretty place!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bloggo once again-o Symphonico: Elgar and Saint Saens at the opening Greenville Symphony Concert of 2014-15



The last time Dottore Gianni offered a musical critique of classical music in Greenville (and it still surprises him that there is any classical music to be had there) was in May of this year. Then their season ended and now the new season has just begun.

Dottore Gianni/I/we/whoever attended an interesting and for the most part successful first concert one week ago, featuring just two pieces by two composers. While I've heard the music of both men I don't know it as well as I do several other writers of classical compositions, so I was pleased to be educated, as I don't recall hearing either of the two pieces performed last Sunday.

For the record the offerings were Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto, which featured an impressive guest artist, in the first part of the concert. After intermission the symphony took on Camille Saint-Saens's final symphony, the third, which unusually features an organ in addition to full orchestra. 

But as any of you who have read my blog before must be aware, neither Dottore Gianni nor I know enough about music to comment in detail - at all, in an ideal world...but then that's why blogs were born - doesn't matter! Just write and see if anyone will read!  However, those of you who have read me/us know that I am a fairly good historian, and though my speciality is theatre, I have learned a good bit of the history of music (as much of it parallels artistic movements in theatre, and of course as the two come together in several forms including opera, operettas and Broadway-style musicals.

So as usual the brunt of this post will focus on the composers, their lives and wives (one of them the story of a love-match that lasted until she died, the other...well, the story of a good bit shorter marriage that, to put it mildly, did not end well). I will also focus on the violin soloist, who was as lovely (perhaps more so) as she was talented. I retain a dignified distance from such observations, but Dottore Gianni is a notorious fool for beautiful women, so...here we go

The two composers could not have had more different beginnings, but both grew to be very well thought of in their own lifetimes, and several pieces by each remain in the standard classical repertoire today. 


Edward Elgar, boasting a mighty moustache;
how he et his soup I have no idea!

First, Sir Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934). You all know his music, even if you don't think you do (to reverse the waiter's oft-heard remark in George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell "you think you don't, but you DO!"). But I'll keep you in suspense (Dottore Gianni insists on suspense, whenever possible) on that subject and instead introduce you to the young Elgar. He was one of seven children, his father a piano tuner located near Worcester, UK, though also a violinist "of professional standard" according to Wikipedia - and we know that particular -pedia never lies - his mother a convert to Roman Catholicism, in which religion young Edgar was brought up, much to his father's chagrin. 

Whatever their religious differences, the parents agreed to give all of their children a musical education. Edward was by far the best of the siblings in this pursuit. At age ten, with little formal training, he wrote music for a play performed by his siblings, which he re-worked only slightly 40 years later. But other than lessons on the violin and piano from local teachers, Elgar was largely self-taught. He was gifted, but also worked hard, cramming with books of musical theory on his own. He was exceptional in fact, but still the boy wanted further study. Alas, his father could not afford the at the prestigious Leipzig Conservatory, which Elgar hoped to attend. So the budding composer worked for a time as an assistant to a local solicitor, but wasn't at all suited to it, and struck out on his own, giving music lessons and helping in his father's shop. 

At age 22 he took a job as conductor of a band formed by attendants of a local insane asylum - beggars can't be choosers, Dottore Gianni supposes. He coached the players, wrote and arranged music, acquiring vital practical experience that most young composers, who COULD afford Leipzig and other conservatories, lacked. His early years are quite interesting, but you can read Wikipedia, and even some other, more reliable sources for details. 

At 29 Elgar married one of his students, the daughter of a major general. Sorry to say he was not the very model of a 
modern major general (or was he?) for he became furious 
a portrait of Elgar and his wife
with his daughter and disinherited her for daring to marry a mere musician - and a Roman Catholic musician as well! The unkindest cut of all, apparently. Rather than weaken the relationship, the disinheritance seemed to strengthen it. Alice, for that was her name, she was his business manager, smartly critiqued his compositions, and attempted to meet the "right" people who could further his career. Not only was it a love match, it seemed a fine commercial match as well. While his early compositions met with only tepid praise, with Alice's help he soldiered on and his reputation grew. 

His breakthrough came in 1899 with the composition of "Variations on an Original Theme." It is not known as that now, however, for over the first six bars of music Elgar printed the word ENIGMA. Sparks your interest, yes? It seems that the "enigma" was not the fourteen variations he composed on the theme, but on what he called an overarching theme that Elgar claimed ran through the music, but that (again Elgar said) "is never heard."

Okay...(pause while Dottore Gianni smokes a pipe of opium and ponders the last statement)

The "Enigma Variations" put the composer on the map and afterwards success followed success. He wrote two symphonies, a violin concerto (that should be obvious) a cello
Elgar "statuesque"
concerto, dances, choral pieces - he set Cardinal Newman's poem "The Dream of Gerontius," and it is one of his more frequently performed works. But he is best known (and the reason many of you readers know him, whether you know him or not) a set of marches. The first of these has had words put to it, and the title of the song is "Land of Hope and Glory," which many consider England's unofficial national anthem. It's a moving piece - there's also a dark British film called Hope and Glory that everyone interested in England should see - still confused? Well the title of the marches is "The Pomp and Circumstance Marches." Lightbulbs going on now? For some of you I'm sure, but for those of you that still don't have it, think just about every U.S. high school graduation - the music of the first march is ubiquitous, and perhaps deservedly so - it is eminently march-able!


However we want to focus on the Violin Concerto, Op. 61 in B minor. It was commissioned in 1910 by one of the worlds most celebrated violinists, Fritz Kreisler, and proved a great success for Elgar as well as Kreisler. It is written in three movements:

I. Allegro
II. Andante
III. Allegro molto

I must admit that Dottore Gianni's socks were not knocked off by this piece - they didn't even begin to slip down his ankles. I don't find it memorable, but it was well played by the orchestra and ably played by American violinist Elena 
Ahem! Elena Urioste
Urioste. Dottore Gianni insists, so I will say that in the publicity she looked quite lovely. When she walked out on the stage Sunday afternoon she was even more so. She wore a stunning white gown, bare-shouldered, with a long white sash down her back. She was - what can one say? - a vision! 

She has a very impressive resume and was certainly proficient in playing the piece, still it wasn't to my mind as well as to the increasingly disappointed Dottore Gianni's mind...after she had started so well...her entrance was breathtaking. But until she left the stage, another act of beauty as she sashayed into the wings, she seldom rose above  the mark of very nice in terms of her musicianship. 

Of course the audience didn't agree with me - immediately standing, shouting Bravo (it should be Brava), and carrying on as they always do...I have yet to see a GSO concert NOT give a standing ovation, thus rendering it useless - what good is a standing ovation if it happens every time? But the good doctor and I have complained of this often enough before - does anyone listen? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what WE see? (If you know the musical 1776 you'll wince at my paraphrase - at least you should).

I could go on, and I will, but now to the second part of the concert! If Elgar was a gifted child,  Camille Saint-Saens 
Saint-Saens
(1835-1921) would have been a candidate for Mensa (had that organization existed)! Wikipedia tells us that at the age of two he was found to have perfect pitch, and he composed his first piece for the piano before he turned five years old - move over Mozart! entry goes on to say that the composer's "precosity was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by the age of three, and had some mastery of Latin by the age of seven." He first performed publicly at the age of five, playing, appropriately enough with a Mozart sonata, and at the age of ten he performed at the hallowed Salle Pleyel, this time playing Mozart, Handel, Hummel and Bach. As an encore he offered to play any of Beethoven's piano sonatas...from memory! Wonder which one the audience chose for him?

It was only AFTER these early accomplishments that he entered the Conservatoire de Paris, at the ripe old age of thirteen, where he met an even younger student Georges Bizet (age 10), and also became friends with Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz, who said of Saint-Saens, "He knows everything, but lacks inexperience."

The young genius (an overused appellation today, but Dottore Gianni and I agree that in this case it fits) also studied geology, archeology, botany and lepidoptery. In addition he was an expert at mathematics. I could go on, and the Wikipedia article does, but I think by now you get the point. 

He made money by playing the organ for several churches in Paris, and was rewarded by being offered the position of organist at the important church la Madeleine, a post he kept for 20 years. 

In my opening I mentioned one happy marriage...that would be Elgar's. Again I quote from Wikipedia (I joke about it a lot, but it is very good on composers) to describe the marriage of Saint-Saens in 1875 (that would make him almost 40 years old) to Marie Laure Emile Truffot (aged 19). "They had two sons, both of whom died in 1878, within six weeks of each other, one from an illness, the other upon falling out of a fourth-story window (as the composer, approaching his house, watched). For the latter death Saint-Saens blamed his wife, and when they went on vacation together in 1881, he simply disappeared.

Saint-Saens in action - I tried to find a pic of him and his wife...to no avail
That ended the marriage, though they never officially divorced.

Sidebar, briefly: Two things: first, are Dottore Gianni and I alone in thinking Saint-Saens extraordinary??? Whether for good or bad? And second, there should be an umlaut (two dots to the uninitiated) above the "e" in "Saens" but I couldn't figure out how to type it - sorry.

In 1886 Saint-Saens composed two of his most famous works: "Carnival of the Animals" and Symphony No. 3 Op. 76 C minor. The latter composition we heard last week. It is called the "Organ Symphony" because an organ is one of the instruments. It is not featured, as it might be in a concerto, but it adds a sort of comprehensive feeling to the symphony, and also increases its power.


Okay, so it wasn't exactly like hearing Bernstein's version - but not bad

It is marked

I. Adagio - Allegro moderato; poco adagio
II. Allegro moderato-Presto; Maestoso-Allegro

Where you might ask are the third and fourth movements? According to the GSO's program notes, although it is written in two sections, it does divide into four movements musically speaking. I for one didn't at all mind only one break in the music, though it appears to have confused Dottore Gianni somewhat. In my view the orchestra, led of course by Maestro George Tchivzhel, seemed a tad lost early in the music (the probable first movement) but did better in the second section, and what I determined as the last movement really showed the orchestra at its best.

As the saying goes (according to Shakespeare at least), all's well that ends well. And this concert did.