Today is Veterans’ Day in the United States—an extraordinary day of reflection and gratitude. To honor the day, let me tell you about a concert I attended recently in London, which beautifully captured the spirit of the holiday and its multiple layers of meaning. It is a concert that will stay with me for a long, long time.
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As a bit of background, let us recall that the holiday we now know as “Veteran’s Day” in the United States was originally established as “Armistice Day” to commemorate the end of World War I. This is an important event in American history, but it looms far, far larger on the other side of the Pond. The date is particularly poignant this year, as it marks the 100th anniversary of the war’s beginning.
Given the importance of this year’s anniversary, Britain has created a country-wide series of events to commemorate it. Of course, the most famous commemorative event is the “Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red” poppy installation at the Tower of London. This exhibit is the brainchild of Paul Cummins, a 37-year-old ceramic artist, who envisioned a vast field of ceramic poppies—one for each fallen soldier from the Commonwealth—that ebbs and flows around this iconic building.
But there have been other events, too. In particular, the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the direction of Nicholas Collon, paid homage to the Great War with a thoughtfully conceived, brilliantly executed concert that my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.
It was a perfect tribute.
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Opening the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes. This is a remarkable work that moves through a wide range of divergent moods. “Dawn,” which opens the set, manages to be simultaneously luminous and ominous. “Sunday Morning” teems with activity and industry, setting up a stark contrast with the loneliness of “Moonlight.” Done correctly, “Storm” is a visceral, elemental experience that should make your hair stand on end.
The performance was quite good, although I might have hoped the extremes were slightly more… well, extreme. I wondered if the dry acoustic of the Marlowe might have been a factor, but I was hoping for a wilder, louder finale. But this would be quibbling—the orchestra gave it a virtuosic performance with tight ensemble playing. I was again reminded that I would at some point love to see the full opera live.
The first half was rounded out with Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a probing performance by Alisa Weilerstein. The concerto is a natural choice for a concert such as this; written in 1919, it is often seen as an elegy for the Edwardian era that was swept away by the carnage of World War I. It is introspective, even sorrowful, but still carries a grave dignity about it.
Alisa Weilerstein made the most of the work, giving it an emotional reading that was deeply personal. So personal, in fact, that there were a couple of moments where she seemed poised to leave the ensemble behind and take off on her own. But by and large it was a strong partnership, particularly in the third movement. In the adagio, there was a close rapport between the artists, and the Philhamonia’s strings provided breath-taking support for her.
All in all, this was a heartfelt performance that was unafraid of taking risks. And the risks paid off.
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The second half of the concert was given over to Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3), a relative rarity in the concert hall. It was a remarkable performance.
Curiously, the Pastoral Symphony caused quite a bit of controversy when it premiered in 1922. For one, the choice of title was inherently problematic, suggesting a (non-existent) connection to Beethoven’s famous Sixth Symphony, and implying that Vaughan Williams was depicting the English landscape.
But the word “pastoral” didn’t signify the fields of England. Its point of departure was the fields of Flanders, which over the course of World War I had been ripped asunder by heavy artillery. This was a landscape he knew well—in 1914, at age 42, he joined an ambulance brigade on the Western Front, and from there he witnessed the unfolding carnage first-hand.
Years after the premiere, Vaughan Williams lamented that so many had mistaken his ironic intent. He wrote:
It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.
But besides the confusion caused by the name, the symphony’s overall structure took many people by surprise. There are the expected four movements, but they are all fairly slow. More than anything, however, the music is unstable… it keeps shifting from one tonal center to another. It also veers into modal harmonies that, while not jarring in a Stravinsky-esque manner, leave the listener without a solid foundation.
It is serenely restless. Gently disquieting.
Another curious point. For having been conceived during the war, it is almost the antithesis of wartime music as typified by Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. It is as if the horrors Vaughan Williams witnessed were too terrible to remember. Instead of marches, percussion and martial fanfares, the Pastoral Symphony is a work of longing and regret, lamenting the loss of many personal friends, as well as an entire generation.
The Philharmonic gave a performance that brilliantly captured these profound, complex feelings.
Right from the start, Collon created a perfect blend of solemnity and spirituality, without ever making the work feel like a dirge. The upper strings were absolutely luminous. Yukiko Ogura created a series of fleeting viola solos that were breathtaking, but also led the entire section in creating wonderfully rich sonorities. It was masterful playing that earned her strong accolades from the orchestra during the final applause. The cellos’ playing was equally inspired, and as a whole the strings’ sound was gorgeous.
The second movement in famous for its haunting, off-stage trumpet solo; Vaughn Williams was inspired by an army bugler he had heard practicing, who repeatedly missed a high note, hitting the seventh rather than the octave. The resulting solo is riveting. It feels vaguely unresolved—and I don’t mean musically unresolved so much as spiritually unresolved. Jason Evans captured the gesture perfectly.
The third movement was the symphony’s “fast” movement… but again Vaughan Williams toys with our expectations. He creates a sequence of lop-sided dance rhythms that are both familiar and disorienting, and the Philharmonia made the most of this delicious paradox.
But it was in the final movement that made this performance so extraordinary.
Over nothing but a low drum roll, soprano Elizabeth Watts began an otherworldly, wordless song that rolled down on us from the uppermost balcony. It was as if we had stepped out of time. I don’t know that I can adequately convey the effect in words… it was serene and comforting, and yet absolutely devastating.
At its end, Collon brought the orchestra in with a sense of conviction, a finality that the work never alluded to before. There was at last a sense of peace.
But in the work’s closing moments, this assurance was interrupted by the wordless song again floating in from the distance. Was this a song of hope for the fallen? A lament? Simply the wind swirling around the shattered terrain? We aren’t allowed to know, and that final ambiguity was deeply, deeply affecting.
In the end, I was struck that early listeners would think the Pastoral Symphony was about sheep and babbling brooks. It was gorgeous… but at the same time, it had depths of profound sadness.
My heartfelt gratitude to Collon, Watts, Weilerstein and all the musicians of the Philharmonia. It was a profoundly moving tribute.
And thank you of course to our veterans. We remember.