The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Let us celebrate Brit Grit after the Manchester terrorist attack with Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 | May 24, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

First came the unforgettable.

Then came the unforgivable.

In the first case, I am talking about the woefully under-attended performance on Sunday afternoon at the Wisconsin Union Theater by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (below) under its outgoing maestro Edo de Waart.

The MSO played the Overture to the opera “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody” by Ernest Bloch, with principal cellist Susan Babini as soloist; and the Symphony No. 1 by Sir Edward Elgar.

In each case, all sections of the orchestra performed stunningly well and the caliber of performance made you wonder: “Why don’t we hear this group more often?”

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra used to tour to Madison every year or so. It should do so again.

Then not long after the concert came word of the deadly terrorist attack by a suicide bomber at a pop concert in Manchester, England.

Sure, sometimes these things just happen. But coincidences can have power.

The Ear can’t think of a more stately and forceful statement of British fortitude and stoicism – the same grit that saw Britain through the Nazi blitz — than the poignant march-like opening of the first movement of Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1.

Chances are you don’t know the symphony.

Chances are you know Elgar from his “Pomp and Circumstance” Marches, from his “Enigma Variations” for orchestra, from his Cello Concerto, from his Violin Concerto, from the violin miniature “Salut d’amour.”

But this is grand and great Elgar (below) who, like Brahms, turned to writing symphonies only late in his life.

We don’t hear Elgar’s first symphony often enough.

And this just happens to be the right time, both because of the world-class performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and because the symphony was premiered in 1908 — in Manchester — and then went on to be popular enough to have some 100 performances in its first year.

But it has fallen out of favor. The last time the Ear heard it live was years ago when the UW Symphony Orchestra played it under the baton of guest conductor and UW-Madison alumnus Kenneth Woods (below), who now leads the English Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Mahler Festival.

So here, in the YouTube video at the bottom, is a complete recording from the BBC Proms in 2012. Perhaps you will only listen to the opening movement, or even just the opening of the opening movement, with its moving theme that recurs throughout and then returns at the end.

But however much you listen to — and you shouldn’t miss the glorious slow movement – it seems a fitting choice to share today.

After all, as Leonard Bernstein once said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

If you have another choice of music to listen to on this deadly occasion, leave word and a YouTube link in the COMMENT section.

Solidarity through music!


  1. A word about the Milwaukee Symphony’s performance being so poorly attended. Same thing happened at the last performance here that I went to. I was shocked as well. Terrible timing. There were concerts and picnics and block parties around town competing. And while I love Shannon Hall, there are serious accessibility issues. If people want to hear the MSO they usually drive to Milwaukee. So, if the orchestra returns I humbly suggest a better time and much more promotion.

    Comment by Ronnie Hess — May 24, 2017 @ 9:50 am

    • I fully agree. They are a terrific orchestra and they deserve better.

      Comment by FFlambeau — May 24, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

  2. The Elgar is really lovely, and is indeed a moving tribute to those injured/killed in the recent bombings.

    In fact, the whole show by the MSO and outgoing conductor Edo de Waart was beautifully put together. I suspect that the low number of attendees was due to the year’s end in Madison and the location of the concert. The Maestro will be missed but let’s hope he makes some guest appearances in his newly adopted town of Middleton.

    And kudos to the MSO for bringing de Waart to the MSO and keeping him there for 8 years. They will now have to move on and bring in a replacement but he’s done wonders there and that task should be relatively easy, especially with his ties.

    This brings up the subject of changes in positions in Madison. Also outgoing is Maestro James Smith and his loss will also keenly be felt.

    Soon the local MSO will need a new leader. Let’s hope they change their model and bring someone in for a limited number of years (say 6) with the ability to extend that for 4 years and another 4 (total amount of time to be spent as conductor: 14 years). This is much better than giving someone a lifetime position and seeing them fail to grow/develop which is what I think we have seen locally.

    Interesting that this is the model ( with fewer years in the contract) that the Eugene (Oregon) Symphony Orchestra uses and that they have just hired Francesco Lecce-Chong as their new musical director. They have had some impressive conductors, including Marin Alsop. FLC was an understudy to de Waart in Milwaukee. That’s a good model and an excellent choice too.

    Comment by FFlambeau — May 24, 2017 @ 12:27 am

    • I couldn’t agree more re limited term conductors. I also believe that orchestras like Madison Symphony Orchestra make ideal proving grounds for promising young conductors, benefitting both. New energy and new ideas benefit the orchestra and audience, while the experience and caliber of the orchestra make an excellent ‘school’ for younger conductors.

      Comment by slfiore — May 24, 2017 @ 6:38 am

      • Yup.

        But hard to see how the MSO is doing much for “promising young conductors” since their maestro is well into his 70’s and there are not that many guest conductors who are on a high level.

        Madison needs to embrace the model that Eugene and many other orchestras use: time limits in contracts. It makes zero sense to give a person a lifetime sinecure.

        Comment by FFlambeau — May 24, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

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