KC Symphony cello section talks Elgar’s iconic concerto

The Kansas City Symphony presents Brilliant Brits: Elgar & Vaughan Williams on Jan. 8-10 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. These concerts feature guest conductor Robert Spano and guest cellist Timotheos Petrin. Tickets start at $25. To purchase, select your seats here or call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400. 

We asked the Kansas City Symphony cello section to share their thoughts about this weekend’s featured piece: the Elgar Cello Concerto. Read on to see why they regard this as an important and beautiful work.

Alexander East, Kansas City Symphony Assistant Principal Cellist
Alexander East, Kansas City Symphony Assistant Principal Cellist

When I first got serious about the cello, my parents brought home a stack of LP recordings from the music school library. Included were classic recordings of all the major cello concerti with orchestra with all the major solo cellists. The Elgar Cello Concerto featuring Jacqueline du Pré caught my attention the most, with its robust tone and deep melancholy. It was a motivating experience!

Alexander East, Kansas City Symphony Assistant Principal Cellist

Lawrence Figg, Kansas City Symphony Cellist
Lawrence Figg, Kansas City Symphony Cellist



The Elgar is truly one of the great, emotionally exciting cello concertos. It is demanding physically and emotionally on both the soloist and the audience, which is another reason to experience it live. Knowing that Elgar considered this his “swansong” composition makes it that much more poignant!

— Lawrence Figg, Kansas City Symphony Cellist 


Susie Yang, Kansas City Symphony Associate Principal Cellist
Susie Yang, Kansas City Symphony Associate Principal Cellist

The Elgar Concerto is very powerful and has probably affected young cellists all over the world. One of the most powerful recordings, in my opinion, is the Jacqueline du Pré recording/video. That is definitely the video I watched when I decided to really become serious about the cello. It was also one of the first pieces I performed with orchestra. It has a good score that shows the conversation between solo cellist and orchestra. The cello technique is utilized in all ways in this piece. It showcases lyricism, virtuosic technique, and it uses the wide range of the cello. It really brings the audience through all kinds of emotions … sorrow, passion, anger, playfulness, love … these are just a few of the feelings you can experience listening to this concerto.

Susie Yang, Kansas City Symphony Associate Principal Cellist (Richard Hill Chair)

Meredith McCook, Kansas City Symphony Cellist
Meredith McCook, Kansas City Symphony Cellist

The Elgar Cello Concerto is one of the concertos that many young cellists hear for the first time and feel really inspired by. I think the first time I heard Elgar was Jacqueline du Pré’s famous recording, which she is so well known for. The way that she identified with the concerto was very primal and truly unique in the way that she performed it with such natural passion. It really allows the cellist to “dig in” to many melodies and feel free to play with abandon and many different types of expression — from the crashing chords of the beginning to the second movement’s playful off-the-string spiccato to the beautifully tender moments of the third movement. It is definitely a “meat and potatoes” standard piece of the cello repertoire and is definitely not to be missed!”

— Meredith McCook, Kansas City Symphony Cellist

Aram Demirjian, Kansas City Symphony Associate Conductor
Aram Demirjian,  Kansas City Symphony Associate Conductor, David T. Beals III Chair

The Elgar Cello Concerto is a stark, impassioned, brooding and nostalgic expression of the deepest corners of both the soul of Elgar and the cellists that perform it. It alternates between being introverted and extroverted, virtuosic and lyrical, and it is one of the best showcases of all of the cello’s unique expressive capabilities. Like so much British music, it is a dignified but passionate expression of powerful emotion that refuses to remain silent.

While I can’t say whether it’s the “best” cello concerto, the Elgar truly is my favorite. I love playing it — it is incredibly well-written for the capabilities of the instrument, and while it is challenging, it is also incredibly satisfying to play. I’ve always felt a very personal sense of connection to the Elgar Cello Concerto because it was a “coming-of-age” piece for me. It was the first major romantic concerto I learned to play, I studied and practiced it fiendishly. As a brooding, moody teenager, I felt an instant connection with depth and rawness of the emotions contained within. It was the piece I was playing at the time in my life when I realized that music was more than just notes and sounds — that music had the capacity to transcend what human beings could express with words; that giving yourself fully to a piece of music was not only important but vital.

It is also particularly special to me because I have played it as a soloist with orchestra, as a cellist in the orchestra, and I have also conducted it. There are few pieces with which I have a stronger connection.

The Elgar Cello Concerto grabs hold of you and does not let go. And you won’t want it to.

— Aram Demirjian, Associate Conductor, David T. Beals III Chair

To hear the amazing Elgar Cello Concerto performed by Timotheos Petrin and the Kansas City Symphony under the direction of Robert Spano for the Jan. 8-10 concerts, select your seats online here or call (816) 471-0400. The program also includes Vaughan Williams’ “London Symphony” and Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder from Higglety, Pigglety Pop! Tickets start at just $25 with student tickets at $10.


FEATURE: The Great War, Music and the Arts

WWI soldiers at Peronne, France
WWI soldiers — Péronne, France

Editor’s note: The Kansas City Symphony presents Brilliant Brits: Elgar and Vaughan Williams on Jan. 8-10 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Since the music presented on these concerts has ties with WWI, the president and CEO of our local gem, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, has penned his thoughts on the historical connections with the art.

Dr. Matthew Naylor. LinkedIn.
Dr. Matthew Naylor. LinkedIn.

By Dr. Matthew Naylor, President and CEO of the National World War I Museum and Memorial

From the vantage point of history — 100 years later — there is consensus: the Great War changed everything. The conflict from 1914-1918 resulted in more than 37 million casualties, and millions of men, women and children were killed or injured and suffered from its after effects. Empires were lost. National boundaries were reshaped. Economies were devastated.

The enduring impact of the Great War continues to be felt today and wields substantial influence on the lives of men and women throughout the world. In examining this tumultuous period — when, for the first time, participants from every inhabited continent engaged in a war — we see a tremendous effect on culture still resonating today. Expressions of feeling and memory through the arts are one of the most significant avenues for making the events of a century ago meaningful for today’s audiences.

Violinist Jascha Heifetz fled the Russian revolution and performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 27, 1917. Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos debuted in Vienna on Oct. 4, 1916. Led by Nick LaRocca, the Dixieland Jass Band recorded “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and “Indiana in New York City” in May 1917. A few months before the most calamitous event the world had ever seen ended, Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat premiered in Switzerland in September 1918 and was influenced greatly by the horrors of the Great War.

Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (L’histoire du Soldat)
Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (L’histoire du Soldat)

Despite this terrible conflict holding a firm grasp on humanity for more than four incredibly long years, the world responded overwhelmingly with strong indications that culture — music, literature, film, art, etc. — was more essential than ever.

That’s why members of the U.S. 439th Motor Supply Train steadfastly ensured that wherever they traversed during the course of the war, their 60-pound portable phonograph went with them. It’s why an American soldier etched “B. Deming” on his banjo and carried it with him while serving with the 432nd Aero Squadron.

Liberty Memorial at the National World War I Musuem and Memorial. Photo credit: Yuefeng D
Liberty Memorial at the National World War I Musuem and Memorial. Photo credit: Yuefeng D

You can see these exceptional artifacts on exhibit at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Because of the effect of culture — both on the war itself and its legacy following the armistice — the Museum features dedicated quiet rooms where people can listen to music of the era and hear poetry and prose written during or about the Great War.

The Museum houses the most comprehensive collection of World War I objects and documents in the world, and it isn’t located in Washington, D.C., or New York or Los Angeles. No, it’s in the heartland, where it belongs, right here in Kansas City.

As the international spotlight shines on Kansas City during the Great War centennial, organizations throughout the community are embracing its cultural significance. The Kansas City Symphony’s 2014-15 Classical Series “Soundtrack for a New Time” featured selections composed in the years leading up to the Great War. The Museum and the Symphony collaborated on a special program in June 2015 that featured Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. “Brilliant Brits: Elgar & Vaughan Williams” continues the Kansas City Symphony’s commemorative programming. Vaughan Williams’ “London” Symphony captures the zeitgeist that preceded the war, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto speaks of the sadness and anguish, felt in England, and the world, following its conclusion.

Additionally, more than a dozen other arts-related organizations in the region already have featured or will provide World War I-related programming in the future. At the Museum, we recently closed the largest exhibition of Australian war art ever shown outside the country. Currently, The Second Battlefield: Nurses in the First World War examines the role of nurses through the lens of French works of art. Of course, the Museum also houses the Pantheon de la Guerre. You can explore what happened to the world’s largest painting through March 27 in our special exhibition Rearranging History: Daniel MacMorris and the Pantheon de la Guerre.

A century ago, the war raged on, with more horrors to follow as the U.S. and other countries joined the fight in the latter half of the conflict. We listen to the music composed before, during and following the Great War with a perspective neither the composers nor the audiences had, but with the same understanding conveyed by the emotions expressed. As Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

Ticket information

Kansas City Symphony presents Brilliant Brits
Kansas City Symphony presents Brilliant Brits

The Kansas City Symphony presents Brilliant Brits: Elgar & Vaughan Williams on Jan. 8-10 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The concerts feature guest conductor Robert Spano and guest cellist Timotheos Petrin. Tickets start at $25. To purchase, select your seats here or call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The box office is also available to take phone orders on concert weekends from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. The ticketing window is also open two hours prior to concert start times on Saturdays and Sundays of concert weekends.

To learn more about the Kansas City Symphony, visit kcsymphony.org. For more information about the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, please visit theworldwar.org.

Inextinguishable Art

Text by Michael Stern, music director

Editor’s note: The Kansas City Symphony performs Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “Inextinguishable” on the May 1-3 concerts. Learn more.

Composer Carl Nielsen
Composer Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 conveys the horrors of war, and simultaneously, the incredible power of music as a reflection of the enduring human spirit.

In our season highlighting the decade and a half that culminated in the outbreak of the First World War, it would have been unthinkable to exclude composer Carl Nielsen.

Art is always a mirror of the world at large. However, the modernism that defined the seismic shift into the 20th century in all the arts, especially music, remains unparalleled in variety and creativity. Even a partial list of composers from the time is a who’s who of genius: Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, de Falla, Vaughan Williams, Elgar — the list goes on, and without doubt, Nielsen holds his rightful place in that impressive company.

Specifically this season, there is a more compelling argument for the inclusion of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable.” While not heard nearly as ubiquitously as some of its contemporaries, Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” is a true masterpiece, and an extraordinarily bracing, unsettling, riveting, and ultimately, thrillingly beautiful creation.

Written between 1914 and 1916, in the bloody first years of the terrible war, the piece is a reflection of a world blown up, and at the same time, fervent evidence of the power of music. At the outset of the first movement, the ignition of an elemental power sets the stage for the entire symphony — it is a wakeup call to an endangered humanity. The inherent compositional logic of the entire work is clear: the climactic “glorioso” at the end of the first section of the opening movement returns at the end of that same movement, and then again, thrillingly, at the very end of the entire symphony. But beyond the logical composition structure, Nielsen is not interested in making the messy or painful elements of that era’s human experience cohere into an easy and serene whole. There is conflict, friction and unease throughout the four interlinked movements. We witness the gunshot-like viola passages in the middle of the second movement, the desperate scream from the violins at the opening of the third, and in one of the most dramatic compositional strokes, the duel between the two timpani in the last movement.

And yet at the end, the triumph of the human spirit is gloriously intact, and along with it, the life-affirming power of music. In the context of the horror of the Great War, this music is extraordinarily moving, as Nielsen describes it:

The symphony evokes the most primal sources of life … Music can do just this, it is its most profound quality, its true domain … because, by simply being itself, it has performed its task. For it is life, whereas the other arts only represent and paraphrase life. Life is indomitable and inextinguishable … music is life, and like it inextinguishable.

Conductor Michael Stern leads the Symphony
Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

Conductor Michael Stern leads the Kansas City Symphony in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “Inextinguishable” on the May 1-3 concerts. Tickets start at $25. The program also includes R. Strauss’ Don Juan and W.A. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 featuring Steven Lin, a finalist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Learn more and select your seats online.