An enjoyable ‘Enchanting Elgar’ by the National Chamber Ensemble

This beloved string ensemble returns to the stage (and screen) with 'pomp and circumstance.'

‘Enchanting Elgar, the English Romantic’ at the National Chamber Ensemble. Photo by Larry Ries.

Edward Elgar has the distinction of being one of the greatest British composers of the late 19th and early 20th century. From the outside looking in, his path was anything but predictable. As a Roman Catholic from a humble background, he often found himself marginalized by the prim and proper society set in pre-WWI Britain. In fact, he struggled greatly to find success until he was in his 40s; his popular Enigma Variations were produced in 1899.

While Elgar may find himself in the running to become the patron saint of late bloomers, there’s no doubt that—despite the challenges he faced—his oeuvre has earned its place in the rotation of popular and respectable classical repertoires. As such, his work is appropriate for the National Chamber Ensemble’s first live concert since the start of the pandemic. Thanks to our pandemic-induced embrace of technology, Enchanting Elgar, the English Romantic—in addition to the live concert that took place on November 6, 2021—is now available to be streamed from the comfort of your living room. The streaming format is what I will be covering today.

Violinist and Artistic Director Leo Sushansky describes playing with the mask on as “driving during winter without a defogger.” If that was indeed the case, it certainly didn’t impact the audience’s experience of these fine musicians. Joining Leo Sushansky on violin is Jorge Orozco, Jennifer Ries and Chris Shieh are the violists for the evening, and Vasily Popov and Steven Honigberg are on cello.
‘Enchanting Elgar, the English Romantic’ at the National Chamber Ensemble. Photo by Larry Ries.

They open with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “String Overture to The Mikado.” This piece is very typical of Gilbert and Sullivan: upbeat, catchy, invigorating. While productions of The Mikado have been challenged in recent years for insensitive stereotypes, the music itself is pleasant enough when removed from that context. Operettas, especially the ones produced by Gilbert and Sullivan, often lampooned and satirized British society and class-consciousness. This piece provides a “taster” for how well this particular string ensemble works together.

The Ensemble then tackles Elgar’s “String Serenade in E Op. 20.” Of note is the introduction to each of the pieces. You don’t just hear the music but are given some background and context to each piece by a different member of the Ensemble. This is part of what makes the National Chamber Ensemble’s concert so accessible to people who may be shy about dipping a toe into the classical music scene. One of the best things about attending one of their concerts in person is having access to such high-quality work while being able to appreciate it in a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.

The three short movements of this piece ease you into Elgar; the progression through each gives you an idea of Elgar’s changing moods. “Larghetto,” the second movement, is especially breathtaking with its relaxed, overlapping call-and-response patterns between the violas and violins.

The first half of the concert is rounded out by the uplifting and romantic “Salut d’Amour” and the crowd-pleaser “Pomp and Circumstance, March No.1 Op.39.” As was mentioned before the performance of this piece, many people are unaware that Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” is the march typically played at graduations—you’ll know it if you hear it.

‘Enchanting Elgar, the English Romantic’ at the National Chamber Ensemble. Photo by Larry Ries.

Of course, the second half of the concert brings the audience the much anticipated “Enigma Variations.” This arrangement reworks the original orchestral piece to something that can be managed with a string sextet. The beauty of this is that it strips the layers back enough to provide the listener a true glimpse of Elgar’s genius. This is abundantly clear during the famous “Nimrod” movement. It’s impressive how this string ensemble evokes a wonderfully bold and grandiose sound from only six musicians.

It’s such a gift that we can all partake in these performances in person, but also a gift that we can watch these wonderful performers in our pajamas! There’s something for everyone in the National Chamber Ensemble’s latest season. Each ticket comes with the (unlimited) ability to stream the concert one week after the concert date. Here are the upcoming offerings available for the Ensemble’s 2021–2022 season:

  • (Streaming now available) – Enchanting Elgar, the English Romantic
  • Dec. 18, 2021 (Streaming link sent Dec. 25) – Holiday Cheer!
  • Feb. 12, 2022 (Streaming link sent Feb. 19) – Beguiling Brahms and Schumann
  • Mar. 19, 2022 (Streaming link sent Mar. 26) – Beloved Baroque Masters
  • May 21, 2022 (Streaming link sent May 28) – Marvelous Mozart and Mendelssohn

Enchanting Elgar, the English Romantic played November 6, 2021, at Gunston Arts Center Theatre One, 2700 S. Lang Street in Arlington. Streaming access can be purchased online. All future performances will be live and in person at Gunston Arts Center Theatre One, except for Holiday Cheer, which will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, 4444 Arlington Boulevard in Arlington. All ticket holders will be sent a streaming link one week after the concert date for unlimited remote viewing. Tickets can be purchased online.


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