Britain’s Musical Soul, All Aflutter

Posted June 15, 2018 12:01 a.m. EDT

MANCHESTER, England — It was coming to the end of the first act of “Siegfried.” The hero was hammering out his sword. The Hallé Orchestra was ratcheting its way through the cranking theme Wagner fashioned for the forging of the blade. The sound was deep, detailed, an actor in its own right.

On the podium, Mark Elder gave a satisfied smile.

In a pair of semi-staged performances this month at the Bridgewater Hall here, the Hallé, in radiant, commanding form, completed Wagner’s “Ring,” nine years after it began. A “Ring” is an achievement for any orchestra, but for the Hallé and its audience, it had a special meaning.

“Siegfried,” which the orchestra will encore at the Edinburgh Festival on Aug. 8, signified the Hallé's recovery: a slow, steady rebuilding in the two decades since it faced mortal financial peril. Long occupying a cherished place in its country’s musical psyche, with an unusually well-defined identity based in British music, it is the kind of orchestra everyone roots for.

It has become, once again, an ensemble with both a claim to international quality and a sense of national purpose — an orchestra vital to the north of England, which it considers its domain.

I can testify to that local mission. In Nottingham, where I grew up, the Hallé was the bright light in a barren musical landscape. It was the first orchestra I heard live as a child; the first to make me cry; the first to put me to sleep; the first to give me that shiver up my spine that I have chased ever since. The Hallé convinced me of the value of a musical life.

It convinced me of Wagner’s value, too, and this “Siegfried” confirmed it gives inspired performances of his work. When it eventually joins the live recordings of the other “Ring” operas on the Hallé's own label, “Siegfried” will crown a set marked by unruffled patience, a rare commitment to details, precision of color, delicacy and grandeur in the same notes.

The “Götterdämmerung” is electric; the “Die Walküre,” which I heard live in 2011, is bathed in tragedy, rather than fired by ardor; the “Das Rheingold,” released this month, is careful, darkly intense. The “Siegfried” will have the best playing and singing of the lot (except for a tentative, thin performance of the title role by Simon O’Neill).

It is all exalted music drama. Barring Daniel Barenboim’s accounts from the Bayreuth Festival, there is no “Ring” from the last 40 years that I would rather hear.

Why would a symphony orchestra, let alone one with a budget of only 10 million pounds ($13.5 million), take on a task that most opera houses fear? For some, a “Ring” is a vanity project. Here, though, Wagner has been integrated into a repertory consciously designed to develop the ensemble. Individual acts came first, then full operas, including a ravishing “Parsifal” at the BBC Proms in 2013.

“Opera in its very nature is basically valuable to all musicians for at least two reasons,” Elder, the music director, said in an interview after a rehearsal. “How music must breathe, because singers have to breathe; and how music can express the psychology of character. In the normal repertoire, most symphony orchestras never get to either of those things.”

“When you do Wagner’s major works, you’re landing yourself with yet another challenge, and that is what I call large-scale chamber music,” added Elder, an acclaimed music director of the English National Opera between 1979 and 1993 and a perpetual candidate to inherit the Royal Opera House. “If it sounds well, it’s because everybody is beginning to be aware of how their part relates to all the others.”

Despite the attraction of a new concert hall, which helped lead Manchester’s revitalization after an Irish Republican Army bombing destroyed parts of the town center in 1996, the Hallé was mired in financial uncertainty when Elder was appointed in 1999.

The board blamed the ambitions and conducting fees of his predecessor, Kent Nagano, who had increased the orchestra’s international reputation, leading it at the Salzburg Festival as the pit band for Messiaen’s immense “Saint François d’Assise.” But, having charged Nagano with that mission, the board tolerated mismanagement and could not curtail ruinous debts.

“The organization nearly didn’t exist,” Elder said. Consultants declared it practically bankrupt. Nearly a fifth of the orchestra, and a third of the staff, was laid off. Morale plummeted.

Deep crises, however, can produce stability if they force an orchestra to stop muddling along. John Summers, the orchestra’s chief executive, who joined the same time as Elder, used emergency state funding to stabilize the finances — though Britain’s austerity has since delivered savage cuts in public subsidy for the arts, so the orchestra still runs deficits.

About 60 percent of the orchestra has been hired since 2000, and it has created its own youth orchestra — conducted by Elder’s American assistant, Jonathon Heyward — and choirs. Most of the Hallé's players take part in its education program, which has unusually strong links with local school authorities, at a time when funding for music education is limited. Often called the country’s oldest orchestra, the Hallé and its choir were established in 1858 by a German pianist and conductor, Charles Hallé. By 1899, the orchestra had become prominent enough to lure Hans Richter — the conductor of Bayreuth’s first “Ring” — from the Vienna Court Opera. After nearly collapsing during World War II, the ensemble was resurrected by John Barbirolli, who used it as an escape from an unhappy spell at the New York Philharmonic in 1943. An inspirational figure, Barbirolli led the Hallé until his death in 1970.

The Hallé became especially associated with British music, particularly through Barbirolli’s recordings of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius. Elder has cemented its position as the guardian of British tradition, not through an unthinking celebration of the past, but a rethinking of its relevance.

“I’m trying to define our musical soul,” he said. That commitment that has only strengthened in a fraught political moment. Elder, who was knighted in 2008, said he has tried to make the Hallé “the best orchestra in the world for playing the music of our country.”

So it is. Unlike so many recordings of English works from earlier generations of conductor-knights, with their whiff of patrician amateurism, Elder’s are distinguished by their preparation and refinement. They are enough to banish any clichéd thought of what the modernist composer Elisabeth Lutyens memorably called “cowpat music.”

There is still a green thread of pastoralism, with Delius, Butterworth and Bax all represented, and Elder seems most comfortable in that idiom. A continuing cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, for example, is more effective in the lush Fifth and the elegiac “A Pastoral Symphony” than in the violence of the Fourth and Sixth.

Given that the Hallé gave the premiere of Elgar’s First Symphony in 1908, it is no surprise that his music dominates. His symphonies, recorded early in Elder’s tenure, would be improved on now, on the evidence of recent performances I have heard. But each of the three titanic oratorios — “The Dream of Gerontius,” “The Apostles” and especially “The Kingdom” — is the stuff of dreams.

Elder’s adoration is not blind. “I believe very strongly that I have to search out really carefully which of the pieces I really want to do, so that I can say why,” he said. “You can’t just do all British music. You have to give it personality. I talk to the orchestra a lot about what it is that makes Elgar and Vaughan Williams and Bax separate sound worlds, so they know what we’re trying to achieve.”

“It’s to do with the balance of the orchestra,” Elder said. Even without underlining Elgar’s Wagnerian ties to the Austro-Germanic tradition, one still needs “a great warmth in the strings, and the brass as in Wagner, supporting, very rarely overwhelming.”

More important is to “spend time in the shadows of the music,” he added, to find “the 50 shades of gray in between the black and the white. That’s the reason to do Elgar, because we all know the brio, the pomp and circumstance — call it what you like.”

Vaughan Williams, who studied with Ravel, poses different challenges. “Gone is the warm richness of the German bass counterpoint,” Elder said. “You need something leaner, something that is balanced acutely for the colors, and the spacing of the music.”

On the NMC label, the Hallé has contributed new additions to the British tradition, including music by Harrison Birtwistle, John Casken, Tarik O’Regan, Helen Grime, Simon Holt and Ryan Wigglesworth, who has served as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor.

“The creative energy in a country is part of defining what the country is,” said Elder, whose contract runs until 2020. (He will most likely stay beyond that, until a successor is in place). “A country without a rich, supported, appreciated, followed cultural energy is a very sad country.”