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Neale Bids Adieu to Symphony With Superb Elgar

San Francisco Chronicle

January 29, 2001

By Joshua Kosman


Chalking things up to nationality is a cheap ploy, no doubt. But listening to conductor Alasdair Neale's magisterial performance of Elgar's Second Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday night—one Englishman probing the soul of another—it was hard to avoid such thoughts.


In his final season with the San Francisco Symphony, Neale continues to offer timely reminders of what local audiences will soon be missing. The fluid precision of his beat, his command of both large-scale shape and momentary detail, and the almost self-effacing tact with which he mounts an expressive argument are virtues that can illuminate a wide range of orchestral music.


And Elgar's broad, emotionally volatile Second Symphony calls for just that combination of qualities.

Its combination of propriety and sentimental self-revelation—the way the composer seems to pour out his heart and observe standards of musical decorum at the same time—strikes a contemporary listener as distinctively British. Neale, leading the San Francisco Symphony for the last time as associate conductor, did himself and the work proud.


The tone and shape of Elgar's writing are all too easy to misconstrue. As with so much of his music, the dominant mood of gloom and tetchiness can become oppressive if approached without sympathy—a sympathy that understands how much is implied by what Elgar leaves unsaid.


Yet under Neale's dynamic leadership, both the expansive lineaments and the delicate undercurrents of the symphony stood revealed in all their glory.


Nowhere was this more true than in the vast panoramic sweep of the slow movement, a funeral oration of deep feeling and terrible urgency (among the movement's honorees was King Edward VII, who had died in 1910, the year before the premiere).


Swell of Emotion


With the string sections playing at their considerable finest, the movement's turbulent swell of emotion carried a listener along. Neale charted the music's course with unerring force.


Elsewhere, too, Neale demonstrated a powerful sense of what the score needed to make its points cogently. The first movement proceeded with surefooted directness from one surging crest to the next, observing the formal niceties as road signs while letting the expressive subtext carry the real burden of the discourse. And the symphony's odd finale, mixing introspection and bombast in unpredictable proportions, sounded deeply persuasive in this account . . .


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