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UBC musicians excel with Elgar’s Dream

The Vancouver Sun

by Lloyd Dykk

Few new pieces of music have had such as disastrous premiere as Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 1900 for the Birmingham Festival, which commissioned it. The parts arrived late for rehearsal, the chorusmaster hated the piece to begin with and even the great conductor Hans Richter had problems with it.

The three soloists, especially the tenor, couldn’t sing it, nor could the choir, especially the basses, who clowned through the difficult rhythms where Gerontius’ soul meets the demons in hell. The public had its own problems, and Gerontius got the reputation of being “a difficult work,” until two years later when a much better German production began to establish it as a magnum opus on the scale of Messiah and Elijah.

Even then, there were people who had problems with Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem, which describes the soul’s journey of a dying man to purgatory after being allowed one glimpse of God. Delius found it “a nauseating work.” Charles Stanford said it stank of incense, and George Moore said it was “holy water in a German beer barrel,” no doubt a reference to Wagner. Shaw liked it, though.

Aside from Wagner, it evokes Verdi, the perfumed mysticism of Gounod, the Anglican chants Elgar heard in boyhood and even the flavor of Victorian military bands, all of which must have helped endear it to England, where it’s still revered.

For me, it has the decorous quality of things formally subscribed to but not truly felt. In that sense, it’s also poignant in view of Elgar’s agnosticism: he wanted to believe in a higher power but found little evidence to sustain that want. I think it’s minor, public Elgar, at least in relation to his Cello Concerto, whose sadness is a true reflection of the man, and so, universal. The faith upon which skeptics today are expected to accept The Dream of Gerontius must rely on its music, but the bargain is hard.

And it would be hard to imagine its first audience not being at least partially swayed had they heard the quality that a student body of singers and players brought to its performance at the Chan Centre on Friday. As an end of term project, the University of B.C.’s orchestra (an expanded one of about 80), choristers (about 200 voices), and three soloists went in on this massive cantata of about 90 minutes and swept just about everything along with them.


There are wonderful things coming out of the UBC music program these days, especially the choral sections, now under Bruce Pullan, who conducted, and was the only seasoned professional on that packed stage which spilled over to the loft.

I admit, I didn’t expect to hear professional levels of singing and playing but their accomplishment was practically that, and, more importantly, it was enhanced by the feeling that these young performers passionately believed in every note.

The demon’s chorus, glossed over in even Benjamin Britten’s historic recording, spat fire and brimstone at the same time that it was accurate and controlled. The “angelical choruses” were truly soft and valedictory and the orchestra, except for one cracked trumpet note, played like a dream. To get back to the historic Britten recording, it’s his life-long companion Peter Pears who sings the role of Gerontius and his “soul” after death, but the sound is booty and constricted in the worst English tradition (of course, Pears was too old to sing it by then). How the part should sound is how the 22-year-old tenor Philippe Castagner sang it: lyrically and with bravura. This is an amazing young singer, a Western Canada regional winner of the recently held Metropolitan Opera auditions who moves on to Seattle for further trials in March, and a student of David Meek, who has a record of developing great voices.

Without ever straining, Castagner sang this intensely difficult and long part heroically and with feeling. There are great things ahead for him. Not a bad job either from mezzo-soprano Sandra Stringer and bass-baritone Justin Welsh.

Sat Dec 1, 2001