When it comes to classical music in the twentieth century, some countries had the mojo, and some didn’t. After ruling classical music for nearly three centuries, Germany and Austria lost their mojo with the rise of Fascism and the loss of two wars. At the same time, while Britain had always been a nice place for composers to visit—and Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn did so, famously—the sceptred isle lost its homegrown mojo when Purcell died at the end of 1695.
British classical music got its mojo back in the early twentieth century as part of a general cultural efflorescence around the fin de siècle. But unlike the Germans and Austrians, the Brits kept theirs—by the end of the century, the most requested piece on classical radio stations was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves.
Music director Kenneth Kiesler has come up with a killer program of British music for the University Symphony Orchestra concert on December 10 that’ll test its Anglophile mojo—even without RVW.
Kiesler and the USO will end at the beginning with the first piece that put England back on the musical map: Edward Elgar’s super-virtuoso Enigma Variations of 1899, for full Romantic orchestra plus organ. A set of oblique character studies of the composer’s wife and friends—including noble “Nimrod” and hilarious “Bulldog Dan” variations—it concludes with a finale depicting the composer himself, with flags flying and organ blaring.
In the middle, they’ll play Benjamin Britten’s youthful setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations for tenor soloist and strings, from 1939. Tactile yet twisted, sensitive yet sinister, flushed with ecstasy yet touched with madness, the song cycle will be sung by tenor Kyle Knapp, winner of the 2010 School of Music Concerto Competition.
And they’ll start with perhaps the coolest piece of all, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Orkney Wedding and Sunrise, from 1984. A native of Manchester who moved to the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, Davies wrote the piece as a sort of musical picture postcard of the events of the title, starting with the arrival of the guests, moving through the dancing and the drinking, and culminating with one of the great sunrises in all music: a bagpiper—here, the magnificently named D. Gregor MacGregor III—playing full tilt while the orchestra blazes behind him. For listeners who’ve had enough of Hallelujahs and Sugar Plum Fairies for the season, it’ll be just the thing.
[Originally published in December, 2010.]
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