Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Sir Mark Elder


I’m in the midst of learning quite a lot of music for concerts and upcoming recordings.  However, I decided to take some time out for the rare, and very great, privilege of sitting in on rehearsals with one of the great British conductors of this generation and one of the great American orchestras of any generation.

I have spent the last week re-absorbing Sir Edward Elgar’s monumental Symphony No. 1 in Ab Major, Op. 55, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I wonder whether there is a better 20th-Century symphony than Elgar’s first?  For a very long time, I have held resolutely to the contention that William Walton’s mighty Symphony No. 1 in Bb Minor from 1935 was the apex of 20C British symphonic achievement.  But, after hearing this work assidusouly taken apart and expertly re-assembled by the British maestro, I fear I may have to re-think my position.

Elgar’s work is an extraordinarily tight and focused masterpiece of thematic lyricism and variation across a large canvas of both time and orchestral texture.  It’s also extremely challenging to perform for both conductor and orchestra.  Given that the last time this symphony was played in Chicago at Orchestra Hall was 1983 under the brilliant (and not well enough known British conductor, Raymond Leppard) it is not suprising that the very fine Chicago ensemble responded wonderfully under the expert stewardship of Sir Mark to ignite the engine of Elgar’s compositional constructs and style requirements.


What I find so illuminating in Elder’s approach to the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams is his ability to build the structural foundation of the architecture in the music without being overtly apparent about it, and at the same time catch the finest details of articulation, phrasing and dynamics (listen to his recent recording of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 1 with the Hallé in Manchester). That he does this without trampling on the musicians’ abilities to find their way through the maze of interlocking  note and textural densities, is an object lesson for any conductor at any stage of development and proficiency.

To have watched Elder teach the CSO how to play Elgar without the slightest hint of didacticism was profoundly illuminating on so many levels.  Added to the fact that he was generous enought to spend a few minutes to chat with me about Elgar’s music was just so much icing on the cake!

Damn, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a truly great, great orchestra.  Their ability to instantaneously alter their sound with a depth of resonance that is almost impossible to literally describe is worth the price of admission on any day of the week.  Interestingly, Orchestra Hall has quite weird acoustic anomalies too.  If you’re visiting and want to hear the CSO, sit upstairs (the second level up – not the first circle).

I understand the selection of players for the ADO’s 2016-17 season is announced next Monday.  I guess there must be a few anxious folk waiting for the outcome.  Good luck to everyone and see you in May.

Take care,