On January 15, 2019, British conductor/composer Bramwell Tovey, in Chicago for his subscription series with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in a program including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, and two works by British composers Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar. The Grammy and Juno award-winning Tovey, known as one of the most versatile and charismatic musicians in the world, and having just this month taken up a new position as Principal Conductor of the B.B.C. Concert Orchestra, brought forth a fully-realized account of the finely curated program from this exceptionally talented organization of young musicians.
– Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, 1910, 1913, 1919
Williams composed this “visionary fusion of folksong and sacred music” for a string orchestra divided into three ensembles: a full string orchestra, a smaller orchestra of nine players, and a string quartet, and the construction is central to the rich variety of colors and effects achieved. During the whole of the work, the smaller orchestra acts as a shadow or echo of the larger orchestra, adding a sense of gloss. By way of contrast, the quartet functions in a more prominent role to introduce material that is subsequently manipulated by the 2 larger ensembles.
The first half of the piece is comprised of two very similar phrases, while the second half is comprised of two contrasting phrases, more rhythmically variable. From the outset, the fantasia creates a mystical atmosphere with descending chords and fragments of melody heralding Tallis’ hymn tune, subsequently taken apart by the 3 ensembles.
At one point, a dialogue ensues between the members of the string quartet. Ultimately, the larger ensembles elaborate and discourse together on portions of the hymn until the music dissolves, is restated, and the piece ends in the same mystical vein with which it began.
– Edward Elgar In the South (Alassio), Op. 50, 1903-1904
In listening to this lively, sunny work, one gets an almost picture-postcard sense of the balmy Mediterranean- it’s a colorful, fanciful piece, opening with a theme Elgar called “Joy of Living”, followed by other deliberately orchestrated pastoral Italian images, interposed with sterner stuff, dissonance and almost frantic rhythms. As Tovey energetically encouraged the Orchestra, a well-developed interplay of themes, nicely balanced in the winds and strings, brought the piece through a tympanic roll to an elated conclusion.
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36, 1877-1888
Tchaikovsky himself described this symphony’s opening fanfare as a metaphor for “Fate”; it begins with a glorious heralding in the horns and woodwinds, joined by trumpets, with the lovely grave main melody introduced by the strings. The exceptionally long first movement ushers in a melancholy second melody announced by the oboe, ending passionately. The Scherzo features pizzicato strings, quiet woodwinds and staccato brass, adorned by intermittent timpani. Finally, a vigorous finale structured around a Russian folk melody brings about a triumphant loud cymbal-drenched end. The enthusiastic audience insisted on clapping between movements, and afterwards called out vociferous approval.
Throughout the concert, Maestro Tovey was exciting to watch, deliberate and articulate. He also gave a deal of exacting support to the Civic Orchestra members, who appeared exhilarated at the conclusion of the concert.
For information and tickets to all the great programming of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its training orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, go to www.cso.org
All photos by David Cooper