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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Elgar: The Starlight Express; Stravinsky: The Firebird

12/15/2013 1:00 pm
12/15/2013 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

We know Edward Elgar (1857-1934) in his official capacity as Edwardian England's leading composer in the national vein. "Pomp and Circumstance" springs to mind immediately, then his symphonies and concertos, and then The Dream of Gerontius and his other heavyweight oratorios. Elgar had a lighter side that expressed itself in the incidental music he wrote for The Starlight Express, an adaptation for the London stage of Algernon Blackwood's 1913 fantasy novel for juvenile readers, A Prisoner of Fairyland.
The image of the Starlight Express, the toy train that transports people into another dimension, particularly appealed to Elgar. Some British children experience a series of adventures on the astral plane. It all leads to the revealing of the Christmas Star. The Starlight Express was staged at Christmas, 1915 and its music remains perfect for radio broadcast at Christmastime, the season which we traditionally consider to be the special time for children and when we adults indulge ourselves in nostalgic memories of childhood. That nostalgic quality comes out in Elgar's Starlight Express music. 
As adapted for a 2012 BBC Radio production, the dialog of the stageplay was replaced with dramatic narrative taken directly from Blackwood's novel. Actor Simon Callow is the storyteller in the voiceover melodrama sequences. Elgar was so inspired he wrote more music than the play required. You get to hear all of it on two Chandos compact discs. An accomplished Elgarian, Andrew Davis, conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Elgar also wrote orchestrated songs for The Starlight Express for solo soprano and baritone. Andrew Davis orchestrated three more songs written by Clive Carey for the one-and-only 1915 theater production.
Maybe The Starlight Express will remind you of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, with its excursion to Never-Never Land, or even the Tom Hanks movie The Polar Express.
One good musical fairy tale calls for another, I say, and there's time remaining this afternoon to listen to Igor Stravinsky's famous ballet music, The Firebird (1910), in a recorded version that actually tells us the story of the Russian Prince Ivan, the magic bird and the evil sorcerer Kashchey. The Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova narrates the Russian fairy tale in an English language translation that is perfectly synchronized to Stravinsky's music as performed by the Seattle Symphony under the direction of Gerard Schwarz.
I last broadcast The Firebird in narrated form on Sunday, January 5th, 1992. The 1991 Delos compact disc of The Firebird and the Chandos CD's of The Starlight Express reside in our station's classics record collection.