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Edward Elgar's Post-War Concerto of Conviction

"I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us." English composer Edward Elgar wrote that to a friend during the dark days of World War I. He was living in a small cottage in Sussex. On quiet nights, he could hear the dull thud of artillery from across the Channel.

Elgar composed almost no music during the war. But in the immediate aftermath, he wrote what's come to be considered almost a requiem—his Cello Concerto. At the time, his beloved wife Alice had succumbed to the illness that would eventually take her life.

Elgar himself didn't directly connect these events to the music, but they must have had an effect. The concerto is perhaps Elgar's most searching and austere meditation, lean and sometimes even angry. It turned out to be his last major composition.

The Charitable Cellist

Cellist Steven Isserlis is one of those musicians who always seems to be doing five things at once. When he's not touring the world with his 1730 Stradivarius cello, playing concerts for knowledgeable adults, one might find him preoccupied with teaching kids about the classics.

Isserlis loves performing for children and he's published two kid's books about the lives of the great composers, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, and Why Handel Wagged His Wig.

Isserlis has edited several collections of music for the cello. He also arranges and composes music for his instrument. And, when he finds time for something beside music, Isserlis confesses to passions for Marx Brothers movies and children's literature.

He plays the straight ahead repertoire, like Elgar's concerto and the Bach Cello Suites (newly recorded for the Hyperion label), but his other passion is hunting up repertoire that others haven't paid much attention to from the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsinsadze to rare pieces by Mendelssohn.

He is devoted to the music of Robert Schumann music, and has been awarded a special prize from the city of Zwickau, Schumann's birthplace. In 1998, Isserlis was named Commander of the British Empire, recognizing his services to music.

An Orchestra for New Jersey

It was 1922. The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated; Sinclair Lewis published his classic book Babbitt, and near Newark, a small group of dedicated musicians formed that would eventually become the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

There would be many milestones to come for the orchestra, including hosting Pavarotti's American debut in 1972, a Grammy Award in 2001, and the U.S. and world premieres of many new pieces.

Guest conductor Peter Oundjian leads this performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.