The Splendor of England from Canton, Ohio

Handel, Elgar, Britten, Williams: Emily Albrink (soprano), Brian Keith Johnson (baritone), Canton Symphony Chorus, Kent State University Chorus, VOCI chorus, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), The Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 30.4.2011 (TW)

George Frideric Handel: Anthem No. 1, Zadok the Priest (1727)

Edward Elgar: Serenade for Strings in E Minor (1896)

Benjamin Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (1945)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem (1937)


A first time visitor to Umstattd Hall might have thought that this season-closing concert on April 30 by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was an intentional addendum to the pomp and circumstance of the Royal Wedding that had transpired in London the day before (even though, of course, the program was determined far in advance of the wedding’s announcement). But more on that a bit later. The theme of the concert was “The Splendor of England,” featuring works, all of them splendid to be sure, by Handel, Elgar, Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Even the first work of the program – Handel’s brief but electrifying coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest – was certainly in keeping with all things royal, and thunderously so.

After the orchestra’s lush, quietly measured introduction, the combined choirs of the Canton Symphony Chorus, Kent State University Chorus, and Canton’s delightfully gifted VOCI, exploded with such a sharply pronounced, sonorous entrance that I noticed many wide-eyed audience members appearing to physically bounce upward in their seats. From there, orchestra and choirs embarked on an inspired and unified declaration of sheer jubilance, as if to say, “now that we have your attention.”

A resonant euphoria still seemed present in the air as Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann addressed the audience before the program’s second work, Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. After stating his fond admiration for the beauty of British string music, with impish aplomb he related how some individuals had shared with him their perplexity over the timing of this concert, coming as it did right after the royal nuptials. Leaving the question to dangle unanswered, he abruptly turned his back to the audience to begin conducting. And just before the laughter subsided, he faced us again with a quick afterthought, saying, “It’s because I’m Facebook friends with the Queen.” Then, not losing a beat as it were, it was on to the Elgar.

It’s fair to point out that dedicated followers of the CSO have come to expect, as de rigueur, eminently balanced, crisp, and emotionally engaging performances – in short, great works delivered with great sensitivity. And once again, that is precisely what these remarkable musicians accomplished with Elgar’s iconic piece – interestingly enough, composed as a gift for his wife, Alice, on the occasion of their third wedding anniversary. Here, particularly in the achingly soulful Larghetto movement, with its richly tender and delicate textures, the orchestra was the embodiment of intense lyricism.

That lyrical intensity was all the more magnified and visceral in the remaining two works on the program. Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes were combined by the composer as a single work from his 1945 opera, Peter Grimes, the tragic tale of an outcast fisherman searching for redemption. In this astonishing performance, the orchestra wove a virtual tapestry of moods and textures of the sea, beginning with the tranquility of “Dawn” and “Sunday Morning” in the first two movements, followed by the eerie, atmospheric “Moonlightand climaxing with the relentlessly startling, furious “Storm.” Throughout, the orchestra’s full array of instruments came into play with powerful imagination and virtuosity.

Finally, as if to answer the emotionality of all that tumultuous orchestral roaring, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant Us Peace) brought another kind of fury and angst to our already stunned attention. This was Williams’ searing plea for peace in the looming shadow of World War II. The combined choirs returned, singing with a gripping fervor and urgency, as well as the guest soloists, soprano Emily Albrink and baritone Brian Keith Johnson. With deeply moving clarity, their impeccable artistry brought the work’s bittersweet prayerfulness to the fore, eventually rising to a thunderous, hopeful song of “Glory to God” at the end, which faded into Albrink’s sweetly plaintive, quiet and lingering “dona nobis pacem.” For all of its quietude, this finale was a resounding “amen” to a very memorable CSO season.

Tom Wachunas