Elgar for Everyone


by Christopher Morley
(for classical feature 16.5.19)
Elgar-lovers have the chance to play the composer's own piano at the end of this month, when the Worcester-based Elgar Festival celebrates the run-up to the composer's 162nd birthday.
The instrument, an upright, is one of several usually stored at The Firs, Elgar's birthplace in Lower Broadheath just outside Worcester, but for the first three days of this "Elgar for Everyone" Festival it will be waiting in the lobby of the Henry Sandon Hall, ready for fingers of any level of skill to explore its keys.
"The new Henry Sandon Hall is on the site of the Royal Porcelain Works," Kenneth Woods, Artistic Director of the Festival and conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, explains.
"It's a gorgeous facility which just opened with a very nifty 150-seat performing space, some lovely open lobbies and bar and a nice little cafe."
And Kenneth goes on to tell me some fascinating details about the piano. "It was made in Paris by Antoine Bord in 1884," he tells me, "and it was sold in the Elgar Brothers music shop, near Worcester Cathedral It still has the Elgar Brothers sticker in it!
"Elgar kept it until 1931. It was stored in his attic in Marl Bank -- again, very near the Cathedral -- at that time, and he gave it to Betty, the daughter of his valet, Dick Mountford. She was about five years old at the time and kept it her whole life. When she died, it was given to a neighbour, and the neighbour gave it to the National Trust in 2018."
Henry Sandon Hall is also the venue for a day of cello masterclasses and workshops on May 30, when young cellists from across Elgar country are invited to join cellists from the ESO and Kenneth Woods, a notable cellist himself. The day culminates in a free cello ensemble performance at 4pm. Registration is £35.00, available from esoyouth@eso.co.uk.
Across the three main days of the festival Worcester Guildhall hosts an exhibition of Elgar memorabilia on loan from prestigious international private collections, and continuing the "Elgar for Everyone" theme a family concert at Malvern College on May 31 (7pm) brings together members of the English Symphony Orchestra, the ESO Youth Orchestras and friends.
Other well-loved venues in Elgarshire host events during the Festival: the Elgar School of Music presents an Elgar song recital at 1pm on May 31, The Firs hosts the Elgar Chorale on June 1 in a programme of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and John Rutter (11am), the Proteus Ensemble feature some of the highlights of Elgar's choral music in Worcester Cathedral that afternoon (3pm), and on June 2 Huntingdon Hall celebrates Elgar's actual birthday with a performance of the Violin Sonata from ESO concertmaster Zoe Beyers and Philip Moore (11am).
But the biggie of the whole weekend is a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto, celebrating the centenary of its composition, given by soloist Raphael Wallfisch and the English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods conducting, in Worcester Cathedral on June 1 (7.30pm). The programme also includes Elgar's Sea Pictures in the choral arrangement by Donald Fraser (the Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir), and Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony.
Kenneth talks movingly about the concerto Elgar composed for Ken's own beloved instrument.
"The Elgar Cello Concerto is not by any means a happy piece, and yet, as we approach this 100th Anniversary Concert, it is one of the most popular musical works in the country.

"When Elgar wrote it, he had a lot that was weighing on his mind - concern for his wife's health, deep despair at the ongoing war on the continent, and a pervasive sense that the world he knew was dying and that the world which was emerging in its place was not going to have much use for Edward Elgar's music.

"He was right to be worried about all those things - history tells us that World War I was a far darker and more awful thing than Elgar could have known at the time. Alice died just over six months after the premiere of the Concerto. And yes, the pre-War world Elgar knew is gone.

"And yet his music means more to more people now than ever before. Elgar was never the character he played throughout life - this sort of pompous, upright Colonel Blimp. That was a mask he needed to rise through the ranks of Edwardian society. Today, the real Elgar, the man he confesses himself to be in the Concerto, is the one we relate to.

"It's as if he's saying however great the sorrow and despair around us, never give up. Life means you have to keep going, no matter the sorrow - that's why the piece strikes such a deep chord with people. I'm sure Beethoven would have approved."

*The Elgar Festival runs from May 30 to June 2. All details on www.worcesterlive.co.uk, 01905 611427, elgar@elgarfestival.org

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