Cellist Sophie Shao and conductor Keith Lockhart with the BBC Concert Orchestra. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
The BBC Concert Orchestra could easily be mistaken on its current California tour for being not just British but the embodiment of Ye Olde England in some of its former glory. The foundation for its program at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa Tuesday night (to be repeated Thursday at in Northridge and Friday in San Diego) was Edward Elgar at his most familiar — the popular "Enigma Variations" and the sun-setting-on-the-empire Cello Concerto.
More nostalgia for times gone by came with a little piece by George Butterworth, written shortly before he died in battle in the First World War. Benjamin Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes," which opened the program, has a slightly later, though also long-gone, British Isles written all over it.
If there was spanner in the works, it was that Keith Lockhart, music director of the orchestra since 2010, is not only an American but the longtime music director of the Boston Pops, no less. The excellent soloist, Sophie Shao, happens to be a cellist from Texas.
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What made the evening even more peculiar is that this is the least conventional of the several orchestras supported by the BBC. Its programming is wide-ranging and occasionally hip. Coming up in London, for instance, the orchestra will undertake an intriguing performance of Kurt Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins" with the American indie singer and songwriter Shara Worden. Lockhart soon will conduct L.A. composer William Grant Still's "Afro-American" Symphony, which is heard far less often hereabout than Tuesday's Elgar or Britten. When the BBC Concert Orchestra returns home to play the kind of music it packed for its U.S. tour, it will alter the context by calling the program "The Death of Nostalgia."
There was little indication Tuesday night, however, that the band had any intention of doing nostalgia the slightest mischief, other than adding an American accent to the performances. The program notes were sincere and admirably extensive. The orchestral playing was straight ahead. Its style is gutsy. Its tone is not lush. The ensemble is solid, not flashy. But it did give the impression that it could cook if given, as it was not here, the opportunity.
There are, though, American connections at least to "Peter Grimes." As a British pacifist waiting out World War II in the U.S., Britten came up with the idea for the opera an hour away from Costa Mesa, in Escondido. Leonard Bernstein conducted the opera's U.S. premiere at Tanglewood in 1946. Also at Tanglewood and with the Boston Symphony the summer of 1990, Bernstein began his last concert with "The Four Sea Interludes" in a transcendentally slow and mystically moving performance that felt like a bardic journey to another realm.
Lockhart had none of that. Rather than linger in atmospherics, he good-naturedly hammered out rhythms as if they were American rhythm and blues. The novel approach worked as far as it went.
Elgar's Cello Concerto is more echt-British music that Americans have made our own. An attention-grabbing new recording featuring the young cellist Alisa Weilerstein is rapturously passionate. Shao was impressive if more constrained. Her tone is big and gorgeous, and she has a modern sensibility. She plays much modern American music. Her Elgar was reliable, but her great strengths can be found elsewhere. She recently premiered a cello concerto by a New York composer, Richard Wilson, for instance, that deserves to get around.
Much is made of Butterworth, that he might have been important had he lived past 31. "The Banks of Green Willows," which began the second half of Tuesday's concert, lasts six minutes, has a pastoral mood and relies on folk song for some of its material. Written in 1913, the year of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," it felt like it belonged to an earlier era and would have been wan even then.
The "Enigma Variations" are hard to spoil, and Lockhart didn't. But they weren't given anything special either. The charismatic characters that Elgar vividly exposed could be recognized. The haunting "Nimrod" was not overly effusive (even though it can withstand it).
The orchestra knew its way around the score. But that was it. Other orchestras and conductors can, and regularly do, play Elgar as well or better and more distinctively. This is the England this British orchestra in particular is supposed to have left behind.
BBC Concert Orchestra
Where: Valley Performing Arts Center, California State University, Northridge