Far cough: almost enjoying Elgar

My friend wrote recently to relay yet another comedy-riddled concert-going experience at this year’s Proms. Enjoy…

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Successfully got to the Albert Hall to see/hear the Elgar with Julian Lloyd Webber as soloist. We had the cheapest seats right up inthe gods, but as it wasn’t sold out we got upgraded to seats in the stalls. Lucky us, we thought.

Elgar

Under the Circumstances...

As we were about to take our new seats we heard two ushers discussing where to seat a patron who had a cough and wanted to be moved to an end seat in case he had to make a quick exit. We didn’t hear the conclusion, but I said to C ‘they’d better not put him near us, or we’ll have to ask to be downgraded back to where we were in the first place.’ We had plenty of time to get settled and read the programme as there was no celebrations of nationality going on in any parks. We had two end seats next to a central aisle. There was a couple sitting directly in front of us and the male was particularly jovial and friendly – making conversation and banter with everyone squeezing past his end seat to get to their seats and asking those in the vicinity where they had traveled from. He seemed in the best of health.

The orchestra came on, then the first violinist, the lights were dimmed, the conductor took his place and the applause, the opening bars of the the Cockaigne Overture filled the hall and then he started, the man in front of us , coughing and sniffing throughout the whole beautiful work. In the brief interlude between the end of the ruined overture and the start of the Cello Concerto, C complained to an usher and we got moved to a loggia box, all to ourself. Fantastic!

Just before the Enigma Variations, the splendid privacy of own box was cut short as 4 other people seated in vicinity of the cougher were ushered in. But it was alright – we felt comradeship through our escape from the man who was afflicted by a cough brought on only by having to listen to music. By the time Pomp and Circumstance had started, we saw him being led away by his wife and an usher.

We have a Sibelius concert booked in December. I’ll let you know how that one goes…

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Elgaaaaaaargh! But hear this…

I can’t help it: I’ve tried to like Elgar, I really have. You know how it is, when everyone else loves something and you, isolated in your solitary dislike of that same thing, feel you’re missing something important, something valuable, something worthwhile.

What is it that I don’t like ? Its bombast, its ponderous harmonic language ? Its comparative lack of rhythmic sophisticaion compared to, say, someone like Walton ? I find it difficult to define what it is about the music that turns me off; perhaps this says more about me than it does about the music. But I’ve tried: I just find it all rather tiresome, and done much better by, well, Walton. And any composer who goes to such lengths as to get himself photgraphed on his deathbed whilst still alive clearly has issues, as well as too much regard for their own posterity than is perhaps healthy.

However, one piece has made me reconsider: his hauting ‘Owls: an Epitaph,’ which I saw on BBC4′ s ‘Elgar: the Man behind the Mask’ back in November. Here, at last, something completely unexpected from Elgar: evocative, small-scale, harmonically troubled, uncertain.

It’s quite unlike Elgar the Great Symphonist, the composer of The Dream of Gerontius or the Cello Concerto. The piece almost tip-toes forward hesitantly, as though unsure of its footing.

A quick trawl through elgar.org reveals Elgar writing in a letter that the piece is “only a fantasy and means nothing. It is in a wood at night evidently and the recurring ‘Nothing’ is only an owlish sound.” But if it is just a meditation on the idea of nothing, it certainly is a highly condensed and dissonant rumination that perhaps is itself significantly more than just ‘nothing.’

I live and learn. I still don’t much like the other works: but here’s something I do like.

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