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Fairy Tales both Magical and Fearsome with the BSO, Elder, and Déjardin

Sir Mark Elder stands against a dark gray background. He wears a navy,  pinstripe suit, and he looks at the camera out of the corners of his eyes. There is an air of mystery about him. Blaise Déjardin poses with his arm around the neck of his cello wearing a concert black. He faces the camera head on and smiles.
Courtesy of Grove Artists; Marco Borggreve: Déjardin
Conductor Sir Mark Elder; cellist Blaise Déjardin

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Encore broadcast on Monday, March 25

Eminent English conductor Sir Mark Elder returns to Symphony Hall for the first time since 2011 to lead a program exploring whimsy, fantasy, and folklore. He leads the American premiere of Elena Langer’s The Dong with  the Luminous Nose, a setting of Edward Lear’s delightful “nonsense poem,” written for the BSO and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance features BSO Principal Cellist Blaise Déjardin as soloist along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose began as a suite of children’s piano pieces, each illustrating an iconic fairytale, while Antonín Dvořák’s The Noonday Witch is based on a much darker Czech folktale. Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s energetically masterful Sinfonietta closes the program.

Sir Mark Elder, conductor 
Blaise Déjardin, cello 
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Maurice RAVEL Mother Goose
Elena LANGER The Dong with a Luminous Nose, for cello, chorus, and orchestra (American premiere; BSO co-commission)
Antonín DVOŘÁK The Noonday Witch
Leoš JANÁČEK Sinfonietta

Read Edward Lear's "The Dong with a Luminous Nose" at Poetry Foundation.

For a preview of the program with Sir Mark Elder, use the player below, and read the transcript underneath:

BSO interview - Sir Mark Elder - March 16, 2024


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Sir Mark Elder, and you are back with the Boston Symphony for the first time in quite a while. But it's really wonderful to have you here and a really fascinating program. So, thank you for a little bit of your time today.

Mark Elder Well, Brian, it's a great pleasure. Of course, I've admired the orchestra for many, many years. And this amazing hall, which has such a sonority to it, it's lovely. But this program is actually full of unfamiliar music.

Brian McCreath It really is. So I wonder where the conception of the program began, whether there was the piece by Elena Langer that you used as the first piece and then built around that, or if there was a different process?

Mark Elder No, you're right. [BSO Vice President for Artistic Planning] Tony Fogg wanted me to come and do Elena's piece. I'd done her suite from her opera Figaro Gets a Divorce with my orchestra in Manchester. She lives very close to me in London, funnily enough. So, we'd known each other slightly and we're getting to know each other much more. And he said, I think you ought to come and do this. What would you like to do with it? And I thought, well, this macabre story, this poem is so wonderful, such wonderful words. It's full of whimsy and fantasy, isn't it? And I thought, well, Mother Goose is a lovely preparation for that because it's familiar tales told with a magical touch. It would just lead us into this unfamiliar tale.

And unfamiliar tales then led me to the Dvořák. And Dvořák's late symphonic poems, right at the end of his life, were designed because they were Czech, because they came from a collection of Czech folk tales, grotesque, many of them violent and upsetting. But he knew by this stage that his command of the orchestra was so great. It was so full of technique, and his ability to combine the colors of the orchestra to suggest different events, different people, different atmospheres, that these folk tales would go very well. What's really lovely is that when Janáček heard them, he said, Oh, that's wonderful Czech music. That's going to inspire me. And he wrote his own, The Fiddlers Child. I don't know whether you know that, but it's a little masterpiece. It never gets any applause from the public because it's so strange and withdrawn. But it's so beautiful and so sad. And that led me to think, well, perhaps the whole evening needs to come to a climax with the Sinfonietta.

Brian McCreath Well, the Sinfonietta, yes, is quite a climax, but let's go back to Elena Langer's piece, The Dong with a Luminous Nose. Were you already pretty familiar with Edward Lear's writing and poetry?

Mark Elder My mother adored him. We had a volume of his poetry in the house. I read it when I was a child. She knew some of it by heart. "The Owl and the Pussycat," is another one ... "went to sea..." So it was not a surprise to me to find that somebody had wanted to set one of these poems. What is a surprise is that Elena, of course, is Russian. She's lived in London for some time, and her knowledge of English is incredible. But she found something in it that appealed to her sense of humor and her sense of compositional invention.

Brian McCreath It is a piece that embraces all that whimsy, but it's also not a simple, happy tale. As you said before, there's some darkness here, and Elena's music reflects that. Tell me about calibrating the orchestra to really get the most out of both of those sides and every other side that there might be to this piece.

Mark Elder Well, you have to get the balance between rehearsing it forensically, every detail and making sure that people understand what they've got to achieve. But at the same time, you need to tell them something about the nature of the words that produce this music, tell them something about the Land of the Jumblies and the Dong, losing his heart to this Jumbly Girl and then missing her. And of course, everybody wants to know what a Jumbly is like, as they want to know what a Dong's like as well. But it's all a fantasy. It's all in his imagination. And he wrote many, many remarkable pieces, Edward Lear. But they were part of my childhood.

Brian McCreath Right. When it comes to the solo cello, it's hard to say exactly, maybe Elena has some words for this that I don't know already, but it seems that the solo cello is reflecting more than one character in the course of the poem.

Mark Elder I think she wanted the cello, which is why it starts with the cello, to be the inner life of the Dong, to be the sensitive nature that is going to go through such trauma in being lonely, finding one of the Jumblies, adoring her, and she adoring him, and then them going off in their sieve. I mean, the whole idea of these people going to sea in a sieve, of course, is just heaven. How many holes does a sieve have in it? But you can't ask it to be rational. That's the whole point. You have to accept it. Of course, the Jumblies' boat would be a sieve. I mean, it couldn't possibly be anything more strong and redoubtable. I mean, it's going to be a sieve, isn't it? And they're going to go home. And I think the cello sings for the inner life. He has some very, very beautiful passages, and he struggles against everybody else, and in the end brings peace.

Brian McCreath And tell me about working with Blaise Déjardin, whom we know well here is the Principal Cellist of the orchestra.

Mark Elder Well, he's a very fine cellist, and I didn't realize that we had worked together, because when I was last here, he was in the section. He's looked into this piece so deeply, and he's playing it with great passion and expressivity.

Brian McCreath I was so interested to watch you rehearse Janáček's Sinfonietta, because there's so much about the phrasing of Janáček's music in general, and you had very, very specific ideas for that opening fanfare that all of these brass players are playing. And I wonder how much that comes from a simple musical instinct based on notes on the page, or whether that is one of those areas where Janáček's link between music and language is what you're looking for.

Mark Elder I think in relation to that opening movement with the fanfares, I think what he's trying to make is a large group of trumpets sound mellifluous and heroic, and to put these two things side by side is a real challenge. And I think it's part of his musical personality that he will always want to find the humanity in whatever he's writing. And I think he makes these instruments sing in the most wonderful way. Even the opening phrase for all the trumpets.

If you've never heard this piece before, it's an astonishing beginning to a piece. And the other instruments support it, of course. And the drums are there. That's the only thing the timpani play in the piece is the brass band music. The timpani don't play for the rest of the time. And of course, it comes from his experience of hearing a military brass band playing in the open air as part of a gymnastic competition. And I think he thought, now is the time to write something to celebrate the courage and achievements of our armed forces. And they'd done so well in that terrible time when the Germans had to be made to leave and they could be given back their independence. But I think that gave him the lie to what a piece that celebrates the armed forces could express. And that, of course, is to contrast his love, everybody's love for Brno as a city, with the terrible things that happened during the war in it, when they were under such ferocious domination, and people were treated very, very badly. And he wanted to reconstruct everybody's relationship, everybody's love of these familiar parts of their city, which had been returned to them. And he wanted to put that into sound. I mean, the opening of the third movement, for instance, the dreamy moonlight one for the monastery on the hill, is wonderful. But then into that world comes something much more unsettling and violent. And then the beauty of the night comes back at the end, which, of course, is something he could do better than anybody.

He was a very great composer, you know. One must stress this. The problem for us with Janáček is that he wrote so little for the concert hall. The Sinfonietta, of course, is a very famous piece because of its musical quality. But it's not so long. I mean, it's less than 25 minutes. Taras Bulba also is the same length, another very, very great work in my view. But there are some shorter pieces. There are some choral pieces, aren't there? But the heart of what he gave us is in the theater, these operas that he wrote all through his life. And they are very, very great pieces of dramatic music.

Brian McCreath You mentioned before that Janáček heard Dvořák's tone poems and was so attracted to them. And Dvořák's language in these tone poems does seem so different from his symphonies, the Seventh, the Eighth, the Ninth that we hear all the time. And so I wonder what insight you have into how Dvořák... These are very late pieces for him. Was he opening up kind of a new way of expression when he was writing them?

Mark Elder I think so. I think there are two things that drove him to this project, which was a big project. And he was right at the end of his life. He wanted to show that he had complete mastery of the orchestra. And in a symphony, when you're thinking about musical journeying and logic and development, the concept of how to use the orchestra is based on something completely different. It's more an intellectual journey. These stories, I think, had recently been published. They were put together by [Karel Jaromír] Erben, and it made such an impact when these old Czech folk tales came out in a new book. And I think he looked at them and thought, they suggest music so much. They are violent, they're grotesque, but I can do that. I can make the orchestra sing in a different way. I can describe events, atmospheres that I haven't had a chance to do. I mean, his operas, some of them, are really, really beautiful. He always wanted to be remembered as an opera composer, you know, and right to the end of his life, he did one great masterpiece, Rusalka, which is a glorious piece. But he tried one more after that, which is not so successful. And I've always felt that he was moving toward being recognized as a great operatic composer. These tone poems put him on the path very, very considerably. They're very theatrical. They're very dramatic. They are about telling stories. And when you rehearse it with an orchestra that doesn't know this music, you have to just get the balance right between telling them the story and making them realize how far they've got to go in changing their colors and style to match the events of the story.

Brian McCreath And indeed, this piece has only been played once before by the Boston Symphony. So, this is new, I mean, it was only a couple of years ago, I think, that Andris Nelsons conducted it. [in 2014 - Ed.]

Mark Elder Oh, good.

Brian McCreath And so you have a group of players here who is discovering this music as a group, I'm sure many of have played maybe this piece in other places.

Mark Elder Well, I asked them at the end of the rehearsal and nobody nodded. Perhaps they were ready for lunch.

Brian McCreath [Laughs] Things tend to go that way sometimes. Well, tell me one more thing. We don't see this too often here in Boston these days, but you have an arrangement of the orchestral instruments in which the violins are split across the podium, First Violins on one side and Second Violins on the other, with the cellos and violas in between in the interior of the stage. And I just wonder, is that the way you always prefer to have orchestras arranged, or is it something about this particular program that inspired you to do that?

Mark Elder No, this is the way I love the orchestra. I've had it for 25 years with my orchestra in Manchester. It's the way the orchestra was when a whole generation of pieces, a whole generation composers were active. That's the way Mahler and Sibelius and Elgar knew the orchestra. And it was actually Sir Charles Mackerras who told me that the person who changed it and got everybody thinking differently was [Leopold] Stokowski, in Philadelphia. He put all the violins on one side, but they'd never been there in one great car park before. And I love it. And when I can't do it, I miss it.

The exception would be if I did a program of music written after the Second World War. If I did a program of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett and some, you know, Germanic or Austrian music from the same period, then I probably wouldn't do it. I'd put the violins together, because that's the way that generation, after the war, knew the orchestra. It had started to change by then. And Ben Britten's music doesn't need this juxtaposition. But most orchestral music, in my view, does. And there are wonderful paintings of the early orchestras. There's a lovely one in Frederick the Great's palace, or something? With a bank of violins side by side, playing off a long desk, you know, one desk, and over the other side there's another desk with the other violins playing face to face. That's very haunting to me, because so much of classical music relies on this balance between these two groups. And nobody's saying that the Second is "only second." I always say to the Seconds, you're just alternates, you're another group of great violins. It's not First and Second. And when you get to the 19th century, the Second Violins have such amazingly complex, demanding virtuoso parts to play. 

The other aspect about it that's very, very difficult to achieve in big repertoire is that you should have at least the same number of Second Violins as Firsts. Because their f-holes are facing upstage, you should have a couple more. But Strauss and Wagner ... The Ring is written for 16 [First Violins], 16 [Second Violins], 12 [Violas], 12 [Cellos], eight [Double Basses]. And even when I cut that down and I do 10,10, and then I would do eight, eight, four, for all sorts of music. In Brahms, for instance, I do even less. Brahms liked having small strings, and it's very exciting doing his music without the bombast, without the monumentality that we've come to expect from his music. So, it's "horses for courses," and I've gone down really quite small. And I think the first half tonight is with a smallish group of strings, and I think it helps Elena's piece enormously because it's very tricky and it's very elaborate. And the chorus are doing marvelously. I mean, they find it really hard, but it's wonderful to get to know them. And of course, their choral director [James Burton] is a very, very old, close friend of mine from Manchester.

Brian McCreath I thought maybe that could have been the case. But not to get too much in the weeds here, but you just did mention the way that the Second Violins then face upstage. Does that mean that they actually do need to play even a little bit more robustly than they would otherwise?

Mark Elder Yes. I often say to them, don't tell anyone else, just play a bit louder, because a lot of the tessitura, the area in the instrument that they have to play is in the less powerful, the first octave and a half. The second octave and half, it always has a brightness to it. And you get on the E string and it comes out, and the First Violins spend their lives up there. But when the Seconds have something important to play, if it's says piano, I say just play loud and it's fine. And then the orchestra sounds great from out in the hall.

Brian McCreath Well, Sir Mark Elder, it's just great to have you back here. And what a fantastic program, as you said, music that we just don't hear that often. And so, it's wonderful to have you here. Thanks again for your time today.

Mark Elder Well, Brian, thank you. Lovely to talk to you. And all the best for what you're doing for music.