Music for a fading empire

By Lawrence Cosentino

BBC Orchestra, Keith Lockhart brings high British melancholy to Wharton

Forget FDR and Churchill, Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl or fond nods from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher. The “special relationship” between Britain and America was really cinched in 2002 when Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart was named music director of the very British BBC Concert Orchestra.

How much do the Brits trust Lockhart? When the BBC’s versatile house band makes a stop Thursday at the Wharton Center, Lansing audiences will get the rare chance to hear the cream of British music from 20th century masters Benjamin Britten, George Butterworth and Edward Elgar, played by a British orchestra. No wonder Lockhart sounds like he’s been handed the Crown Jewels.

“It’s a little intimidating for me,” Lockhart said. “This is their national language, and I feel a bit like the outsider, but we’ve had a great time working on it.”

Lockhart knows he’s not the only American fascinated with the Brits. The end-of-empire, turn-of-the-century pathos that billows Elgar’s sails strangely suits the American zeitgeist today.

“The music of Elgar and Butterworth is very much the music of ‘Downton Abbey,’ which has struck an unexpected chord in American audiences,” Lockhart said. “Whether or not it’s because you see a similarity in the crumbling of the empire, there does seem to be an affinity for this music at this time.”

In Boston, Lockhart stretched the tuxedoes left by high-profile predecessors like Arthur Fiedler and John Williams by bringing jazz and indie artists to the Pops, commissioning new works and welcoming guests like Sting and Steven Tyler. His versatility and knack for outreach made him a natural maestro for the BBC Concert Orchestra, an omnipresent music machine heard frequently on British TV, radio, films and recordings.

The highlight of Thursday’s all-British program is “the” (rhymes with “key”) British concerto — Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which Lockhart called “one of the most lyric, beautiful, melancholy pieces ever written.” Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” the product of the composer’s vigorous youth, is also on Thursday’s slate. Sophie Shao, an artist in residence at New York’s Vassar College, will solo in the concerto. Four spectacular interludes from mid-20th-century master Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes” will evoke the moods of the North Sea, including “one of the great storms in orchestral music,” Lockhart said.

The third composer on Thursday’s program, George Butterworth, may be obscure compared to Elgar and Britten, but he’s almost a sacred name in the sceptered isle. Butterworth, along with a huge swath of Britain’s youth, was killed in World War I, at the battle of the Somme. His pastoral idyll “Banks of Green Willow” is a heartbreaker, especially in view of the composer’s fate.

“It’s simple, pure, innocent and as English a music as I could imagine,” Lockhart said.

These days, many orchestras limit tours to several dates on the coasts, call it a tour and head back to Europe. The Wharton Center is one of only a handful of venues that still go after touring orchestras, said Wharton Center director Michael Brand.

It wasn’t always this way. Brand, who started his arts career as a trumpeter, heard amazing travel stories from his Chicago Symphony teachers in the 1970s, many of whom spent a third of the season on a train. MSU’s Concert Auditorium was a stop on that long-vanished circuit. In the 1950s, The New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, The Metropolitan Orchestra and the London Symphony all came here.

Now Brand has to snag orchestras by means of fill-in dates like Thursday’s, fully sponsored tours or special arrangements with nearby organizations.

BBC Concert Orchestra
Keith Lockhart, conductor
Sophie Shao, cello
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall